Two bomb attacks in Afghanistan targeted worshipers observing a Shiite Muslim holiday, killing at least 59 people, including women and children.
In the most serious incident, a suicide bomber detonated an explosive vest at the gate of the Abul Fazl shrine in Kabul today, killing 55, Hashmatullah Stanekzai, a spokesman for the Kabul police chief, said by phone. The attack, in which 134 were wounded, targeted worshipers who had gathered for the Ashura holiday. There was no immediate claim of responsibility.
“Before I arrived at the gate, there was a huge explosion and I fell down,” said Shuja Ahmad, 35, a government employee who had come to the mosque for Ashura, which marks the anniversary of the death 14 centuries ago of Imam Hussein, Prophet Muhammad’s grandson. “I saw people running, screaming and crying, and saw bodies everywhere.”
The attacks increase concerns as the U.S.-led coalition prepares to transfer security responsibility to the Afghan army and police nationwide by the end of 2014, while maintaining troops afterwards to advise and assist the Afghans. President Hamid Karzai appealed to a conference on Afghanistan in Bonn yesterday to continue financial and security support after 2014.
“One of the worries is that various factions in Afghanistan have already begun to prepare themselves for another civil war in the aftermath of a U.S. and coalition withdrawal,” said Andrew Exum, a former Army platoon leader in Afghanistan who has advised U.S. commanders.
Regional factions may be trying to consolidate power that skirts the central government in Kabul, which the U.S. and its allies are seeking to strengthen, said Exum, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington-based defense policy research group.
He and analyst Kimberly Kagan, a military historian who has advised U.S. forces in Afghanistan, said it’s too early to determine who conducted the attacks or whether they form the beginnings of a trend of sectarian violence.
“We do tend to see more increases in spectacular attacks as we move into the winter season throughout Afghanistan,” said Kagan, the president of the Institute for the Study of War in Washington.
In the second attack today, a bomb attached to a bicycle exploded in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif as people walked across a street to attend an Ashura ceremony, said Sherjan Durani, a spokesman for the Balkh province government. Four people were killed and seven wounded, Durani said.
A third bomb that was placed on a parked motorcycle in the southern city of Kandahar exploded without hurting anyone, said Zalmai Ayoubi, a spokesman for the province.
The attacks marked “the first time that on such an important religious day in Afghanistan, terrorism of that horrible nature is taking place,” Karzai said in Berlin today after meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Zabihullah Mujahed, a Taliban spokesman, denied that his group was responsible for the attacks, which he said were orchestrated by “foreign invaders.”
“The brutal incidents that happened in Kabul and Mazar-e- Sharif are against Islamic law and humanity,” Mujahed said in an e-mailed statement. “The foreigners want civilians to hate the Taliban more and more.”
The Taliban leadership hasn’t always been eager to accept responsibility for some large-scale attacks because civilian casualties have alienated them from the population to a certain extent, Kagan said.
“If it’s true that the Taliban didn’t perpetrate this, it’s good news, because the insurgency would be coming into a much uglier phase than it’s thus far been,” Exum said.
During Taliban rule in the 1990s, the movement’s fighters arrested and killed thousands of Shiites in Mazar-e-Sharif and other cities. Attacks by militant Sunni Muslims on Shiite shrines and religious processions have been less frequent in Afghanistan than in Iraq and Pakistan.
“Most of the spectacular attacks that we’ve seen over the past couple of years have not been directed at sectarian targets specifically,” Kagan said.
The U.S. Embassy in Kabul released a statement condemning the bombings, which it said occurred “nearly simultaneously.” The U.S. “remains undeterred in standing with the Afghan people against the scourge of terrorism in our mutual aim of promoting peace and prosperity,” the statement said.
--With assistance from Patrick Donahue and Tony Czuczka in Berlin. Editors: Terry Atlas, Leslie Hoffecker