Bomb kills 56 as Afghanistan faces religious war

In Afghanistan’s first major sectarian assault since the fall of the Taliban regime a decade ago, a suicide bomber slaughtered 56 Shiite worshippers and wounded more than 160 others Tuesday outside a Shiite shrine in the capital.

KABUL, Afghanistan — In Afghanistan’s first major sectarian assault since the fall of the Taliban regime a decade ago, a suicide bomber slaughtered 56 Shiite worshippers and wounded more than 160 others Tuesday outside a Shiite shrine in the capital.

The body of a woman, clutching a dead child in each arm, was sprawled on a dirt road littered with shoes, bloodstained clothing, and body parts after the blast, which took place as a bombing killed four Shiites in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif.

The Taliban condemned the attack, which was reminiscent of the wave of sectarian bloodshed that shook Iraq during the height of the war there. Suspicion centred on groups based in Pakistan where Sunni attacks on minority Shiites are common.

Until now, the decade-long Afghan war has largely been spared sectarian violence, where civilians are targeted simply for their membership in a particular religious group. Tuesday’s attack suggests that at least some militant groups may have shifted tactics.

Unlike Iraqi militant groups — who consider anybody from the rival community a legitimate target — the Taliban have generally refrained from mass attacks against civilian targets. They usually focus on the U.S.-led coalition, Afghan forces or government offices, although recently the Taliban have been responsible for a rising number of civilian deaths.

The bomb went off shortly before noon as bare-chested men were beating and cutting themselves with knives and chains to mourn the death of one of their most beloved saints. They had gathered at the Abul Fazl shrine to mark the holiday called Ashoura, which honours the death of Imam Hussein, a grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, in 680 A.D.

At roughly the same time in Mazar-i-Sharif, 300 km to the north, four other Shiites were killed and 21 were wounded when a bomb strapped to a bicycle exploded as a convoy was driving down a road.