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In Pakistan's bloodiest city, violence has little to do with militants

By Reza Sayah, CNN
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Unprecedented fear in Karachi
  • Police blame the rampant violence in Karachi on ethnic and political rivalries
  • More than 1,000 people have been killed this year
  • Three political parties are in a bitter power feud
  • Their supporters operate like gangs and control regions

Islamabad, Pakistan (CNN) -- At least 15 were killed in shootouts during Friday and Saturday in Karachi, police said, the latest victims in a surge of deadly violence that has gripped Pakistan's largest city and commercial capital.

Police don't know who is responsible for the killings but suspect they are linked to the recent surge in ethnic and political violence in Karachi. More than 1,000 people have been killed this year, according to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. Nearly 200 people have been slain this month alone.

Many of the victims were innocent civilians.

Earlier this month several passengers were killed when gunmen sprayed their bus with automatic weapons fire. Dozens of pedestrians and bystanders have been caught in crossfire.

The bloodshed is often followed by riots and mobs destroying public property, torching stores and parked cars.

"The fear factor you find in Karachi, you wont find in any terrorism related area," said Sana Bucha, one of Pakistan's top television anchors.

The rampant violence appears to have little to do with the Taliban and other Islamist extremist groups that are viewed by western leaders as Pakistan's most pressing security problem.

Rather, police and government officials say the violence is fueled by bitter ethnic rivalries and political parties vying for power in this mega-melting pot, home to roughly 15 million people from at least a half-a-dozen ethnic groups.

"It's actually this entity everyone wants to control to relegate power," Bucha said.

Three political parties are usually at the center of the fight for power in Karachi: the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), the Awami National Party (ANP), and Pakistan's People Party (PPP).

The PPP, led by Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, considers Karachi its political base, but politics here is dominated by the MQM, which represents "muhajirs," the descendants of immigrants from India decades ago.

In recent years, the MQM's power has been challenged by the ANP, a secular party that represents ethnic Pashtuns.

Hundreds of thousands of ANP supporters have migrated south to Karachi because of the militant violence in their home region of northwest Pakistan. Analysts say a general lack of law and order has allowed supporters of these parties to adopt a gang mentality.

Like gangs, the factions often control different regions of Karachi that are usually off-limits to rivals.

"This creates the problem because of the turf wars," said Karachi Police Chief Saud Mirza, who accuses political parties of inciting some of the violence by stoking up their supporters.

"Most of these ethnic communities are being guided by them, manipulated by them," Mirza said.

Provincial government advisor Sharfuddin Memon said political parties are not solely to blame, but they are key to ending the violence.

"The have to work together if they want to bring peace to the city," Memon said.

But cooperation is never guaranteed in the cut-throat world of Pakistani politics.

Mirza acknowledges his police officers, who make roughly $150 a month, are badly outnumbered and sometimes unable to control the violence.

"We're trying our best," he said.

Mirza insisted change is coming with higher salaries for his officers, better equipment and plans to hold peace talks with warring factions. Bucha was not as optimistic.

"I donšt see an end to this until our politicians mature," he said.

Until then, Karachi could remain Pakistan's bloodiest city.