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Shi'ite Muslims carry coffins of victims killed in Saturday's bomb attack, during a funeral in Quetta February 20, 2013. Pakistani Shi'ites agreed to bury those killed in the most recent sectarian bombing, ending four days of protests, after the government said on Tuesday it had arrested 170 suspects linked to the attack.

NASEER AHMED/REUTERS

A new wave of sectarian violence has engulfed the Near East, the crest of which has reached Pakistan, where 200 Shia Muslims have been killed in two recent bombing attacks carried out by Sunni extremists.

The first attack came Jan. 10, when twin bombs were used. First, a suicide bomber detonated his explosives inside a popular Shia billiards hall in the Baluchistan capital of Quetta, killing several people. Then, a car bomb was detonated moments later when enough people had rushed to the scene to help the wounded.

Members of the Shia community say that, coming after several months of lower-level assaults that claimed the lives of more than 400 people in 2012, this sinister attack had finally gone too far.

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In a profound protest, thousands of Shiites in Baluchistan province blocked the streets and announced they would not bury their dead until the government dismissed the provincial governor and declared martial law. The government relented after days of such demonstrations, joined by others across the country and in many cities around the world, including Toronto.

It did little good. On Feb. 16 another attack hit the community when a water truck filled with explosives blew up in the middle of a Shia market. About 90 people perished.

This time there was more of a response from government and scores of suspects were rounded up. No one, however, thinks the persecution is over.

In Pakistan, as in neighbouring Afghanistan, the anti-Shia attacks are all part of a Salafist agenda, says Alastair Crooke, a former British intelligence operative in Afghanistan and author of Resistance: The Essence of the Islamist Revolution.

According to the Sunni Islam practised by the early Muslim believers, Shiism is an apostasy that cannot be tolerated; it is considered worse even than the faiths of non-believers.

It's ironic, says Mr. Crooke, that it's Pakistan that now suffers from Salafist tensions.

"When I was in Afghanistan 30 years ago, Zia was a charismatic leader who sponsored the jihad against the Soviets," he said, referring to Pakistani president Zia-ul-Haq, who had worked with Saudi Arabia and the United States to arm and finance the mujahedeen fighting Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

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"Zia had no sense that the effort might blow back in Pakistan's face," Mr. Crooke says.

Once the mission in Afghanistan was accomplished and the Taliban installed in Kabul, however, many of those jihadists returned to their homes in Algeria, Saudi Arabia and other countries or moved on to Pakistan, where they fomented wider Salafist movements.

While there was generally a lull in such activity following Sept. 11 and the subsequent U.S.-led attack on the Taliban in Afghanistan, the movement has been reinvigorated in recent years.

The Saudis are very much behind this, Mr. Crooke says. "They are deliberately adopting a sectarian discourse to demonize the Shiites and cement the Sunni identity," he said. "They see it as a way to unite the Sunni nation."

"Opposing heterodoxy, they see themselves as the force against all the others: the Shiites, the Alawites. …"

"The trouble is," he adds, "once you let that genie out of the bottle, the anti-Shia discourse takes on a life of its own. It moves down the spectrum, becoming more and more violent, empowering the extreme end of Sunni Islam."

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It's rather like what happened in Europe 500 years ago, he explains, when the sectarian conflicts of that time were driven by the Catholic Church that would tolerate no deviance. This is what is happening today in Pakistan, as well as in Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia.

In Syria, while it began differently, it has now become a sectarian war as well.

"Groups like the SNC [Syrian National Council] still exist, but they've been marginalized," Mr. Crooke says. "The conflict is being defined by the jihadists," who have taken over the rebel forces.

In neighbouring Iraq, a great deal of the Sunni hostility to the Shiites comes from a strong sense of grievance because the newly empowered Shia government has taken Sunni power and position and wealth.

But the Syrian conflict also plays a part in this sectarian tension.

"Because the Assad regime hasn't fallen as expected," Mr. Crooke explains, "a number of the jihadists have returned to Iraq, where they've set their sights on the second target – the Iraqi Shiites and their regime."

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While the issue in Pakistan and Afghanistan is one of religious purity, in both Syria and Iraq, it's about power.

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