Afghanistan's Shi'a Brace For More Attacks On Ashura Holiday

KABUL -- Members of Afghanistan’s Shi’ite minority are bracing for potential violence as they prepare to commemorate Ashura, the holiest celebration in their religious calendar.

A series of deadly attacks on the country’s Shi’ite community in recent weeks has fueled fears of more violence during the September 20 festival marking the killing of Imam Hussein, a grandson of the Prophet Muhammad.

Shi’a are estimated to number around 3 million in overwhelmingly Sunni Afghanistan, and the majority belong to the Hazara ethnic group.

The authorities said they had security plans for the Ashura celebrations, which were targeted in the past, amid criticism they were failing to protect Shi’a.

Aref Rahmani, an ethnic Hazara representative in the lower house of parliament, the Wolesi Jirga, told RFE/RL that his community will act on their own to protect itself if the government does not provide security.

“The international community, our colleagues at NATO, have a responsibility to pressure the government of Afghanistan to bring reforms and maintain the security of its citizens so people won’t have to take up arms,” said Ahmad Behzad, another ethnic Hazara member of the Wolesi Jirga.

More than 60 people were killed in separate suicide bombings at an education center and a wrestling club in a predominantly Shi’ite neighborhood of Kabul this month.

In early August, two burqa-clad suicide bombers struck a Shi'ite mosque in the eastern city of Gardez, capital of Paktia Province, killing at least 35 people.

The Sunni extremist group Islamic State (IS), which considers Shi’a “apostates” who deserve death, claimed responsibility for those attacks.

Afghanistan's main intelligence agency announced on September 18 the arrest of 26 suspected IS militants in Kabul who were allegedly plotting attacks against Shi’a during the celebrations.

The Western-backed government in Kabul has struggled to combat the Taliban and IS since the United States and NATO formally ended their combat mission in the country in 2014.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani on September 8 announced plans to divide the capital into four security zones.

He also said that increased security, such as setting up a "green zone" similar to the one where many embassies and international organizations are located in Kabul, was needed in the city's predominately Shi’ite west.

However, more consultations were required before the proposals could be implemented, Ghani added.

With reporting by AFP