QUETTA, Pakistan (AP) -- Pakistan's minority Shiite Muslims have started using the word "genocide" to describe a violent spike in attacks against them by a militant Sunni group with suspected links to the country's security agencies and a mainstream political party that governs the largest province.
Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a group of radical Sunni Muslims, who revile Shiites as heretics, has claimed responsibility for dozens of attacks throughout Pakistan. Linked to al-Qaida, it has been declared a foreign terrorist organization by the U.S., yet it operates with relative ease in Pakistan's populous Punjab province, where Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and several other violent jihadi groups are based.
The violence against Shiites has ignited a national debate -- and political arguments -- about a burgeoning militancy in Pakistan. The latest attack was a massive bombing earlier this month that ripped apart a Shiite neighborhood in Pakistan's largest city of Karachi, killing 48 people, many of them as they left a mosque after saying their evening prayers. So far this year nearly 300 Shiites have been killed in devastating bombings, target killings and executions.
The unrelenting attacks also have focused the nation's attention on freedoms that Pakistani politicians give extremists groups, staggering corruption within the police and prison systems and the murky and protracted relationship between militant groups and Pakistan's military and intelligence agencies.
"The government doesn't have the will to go after them and the security agencies are littered with sympathizers who give them space to operate," Hazara Democratic Party chief Abdul Khaliq Hazara, told The Associated Press in a recent interview in Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan where some of the most ferocious anti-Shiite attacks have occurred.
He labeled the killings as the "genocide of Hazaras," whom are mostly Shiites and easily identified by their Central Asian facial features.
"I have a firm belief that our security agencies have not yet decided to end all extremists groups," said Hazara. "They still want those (militants) that they think they can control and will need either in India or Afghanistan," he said referring to allegations that Pakistan uses militants as proxies against hostile India to the east and Afghanistan to the west.
The army has a history of supporting militant Islamists using them as proxies to fight in Kashmir, a region divided between Pakistan and India and claimed by both in its entirety. It is repeatedly criticized by the United States and Afghanistan for not doing enough to deny Afghan insurgents sanctuary in the tribal regions that border Afghanistan. Angry at the criticism, Pakistani army officials say they have lost more than 4,000 soldiers -- more than NATO and the U.S. combined -- fighting militants.
Yet, police officials in Baluchistan and the capital, Islamabad, told the AP that Pakistan's intelligence agency had ordered them to release militant leaders who had been arrested. The militants were not necessarily affiliated with Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, said the officials, who asked not to be identified because they feared losing their jobs.
Even the judiciary has queried Pakistan's security agencies for information about their alleged ties to militants.
The Supreme Court previously ordered the intelligence agencies and the paramilitary Frontier Corp, which was given sweeping powers to track and arrest militants in Quetta, to explain accusations of their involvement in anti-Shiite attacks. The intelligence agency was told by the court to identify unregistered weapons and vehicles some of which were alleged to have been involved in suicide attacks targeting Shiites.
Still in Pakistan's most populous province of Punjab where 60 percent of the country's 180 million people live, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and other militant groups move largely unrestricted.
In 2010, Punjab's Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif issued a surprising appeal to the Taliban, asking them to stop attacks in Punjab province because his government -- just like the militants -- opposed the dictates of the West. In a recent interview with the AP, Ahsan Iqbal, the deputy secretary general of Sharif's conservative Pakistan Muslim League, clarified his boss's comments.
"What we were saying to the Taliban at the time was 'if you are fighting the Pakistan government because they are stooges of the U.S. ... if that is your logic then why are you attacking in the Punjab because we are not stooges of the United States," he said.
The dramatic increase in sectarian violence also has spawned fierce political debate in Parliament with rivals firing volleys of accusations and counter accusations.
The ruling, liberal-leaning Pakistan People's Party has accused its conservative rival, the Pakistan Muslim League, which governs Punjab province, of patronizing radical Sunni groups, including Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. In response, Punjab parliamentarians have shot back, charging the Pakistani federal government with inaction and ineptness for failing to establish a coordinated, nationwide anti-terrorist campaign during its five years at the helm.