PESHAWAR, Pakistan -- A suicide attacker detonated a bomb among police on guard near a Shi'ite Muslim mosque in this northwestern Pakistani city yesterday, killing at least 15 people and wounding more than 30, police said.
The attack came as Pakistan's minority Shi'ites started to commemorate their most important religious festival, Ashura, often a target of sectarian violence. Paramilitary forces in armored vehicles were deployed to patrol Peshawar after the bombing.
The blast went off in a bazaar area about 200 yards from a mosque that was the starting point for the Shi'ite procession. It caused a power outage that left the city center in darkness, complicating rescue efforts.
Police official Aziz Khan said 15 people were killed and more than 30 wounded. Most of the victims were police and municipal officials who were clearing the route for the Shi'ite procession. The city's police chief, Malik Saab, was among the dead, said Sharif Virk, provincial police chief
Nearby, officers had to restrain angry Shi'ites chanting religious slogans.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility, but suspicion probably will fall on Sunni extremists.
Most Shi'ites and Sunnis in Pakistan coexist peacefully, but militant groups on both sides are blamed for sectarian attacks that claim scores of lives every year.
Some fear the relentless sectarian fighting in Iraq risks igniting Sunni- Shi'ite tensions in other Muslim countries.
"The increasing sectarian violence in Iraq will definitely add tension here, and I think it is going to reunite sectarian elements, who have targeted each others' worship places in the past," said Talat Masood, a political and defense analyst.
In Islamabad yesterday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Democrat of California, spoke with Pakistan's president about the security situation in neighboring Afghanistan.
Three weeks ago, the House passed legislation that would link US military aid to Pakistan's commitment to combating Taliban militants. Some fear the measure could strain relations between the two nations, who are allies in the war against terror.
Pelosi and her delegation met with General Pervez Musharraf, the president, shortly after landing in the capital, the US Embassy said. Pelosi and Musharraf made no public comments on the meeting.
At the site of the Peshawar bombing, police found remnants of a suicide belt with pieces of metal and a grenade.
Khan said he was nearby when the bomb went off and rushed to see if his colleagues had been hurt.
"I thought my eardrums had burst. Then there were flames and the people were in panic," he said. "I went to see what had happened to my colleagues. Many were wounded in a bad way."
Musharraf, a key US ally in fighting Al Qaeda, condemned the "terrorist attack" and ordered an inquiry, the state-run Associated Press of Pakistan reported.
The Sunni-Shi'ite schism over who was the true heir to Islam's Prophet Mohammed dates back to the seventh century. Shi'ites represent about 20 percent of Pakistan's Muslims, and Sunnis about 80 percent.
While there are many motives for bombings in Pakistan, the timing of yesterday's attack before the Shi'ite procession raised the possibility the attack was sectarian.
The Ashura processions mark the anniversary of the death of Imam Hussein, a grandson of the Prophet Mohammed, during a battle in Karbala, Iraq, in 680.
Depending on the lunar sighting, Ashura will fall on tomorrow or Tuesday in Pakistan.