A suicide bombing outside a mosque in southeastern Iran killed at least 38 people Wednesday as worshippers observed an important Shiite holiday.
No group immediately claimed responsibility for the attack, which took place in the city of Chabahar in Iran’s Sistan-Baluchistan Province. But it is likely to be blamed on Jundallah, a Sunni and ethnic Baluchi militant organization responsible for multiple attacks in the province, which has a significant Sunni population in majority-Shiite Iran.
The attack came as Shiites were commemorating Ashura, an emotionally charged holiday marking the death of the third Shiite imam – Hussein, the grandson of the prophet Mohammed. The final day of Ashura is Thursday.
Agence France-Presse reports that a suicide bomber blew himself up in a city square outside the Imam Hussein mosque as worshippers were participating in a procession. The explosion wounded at least 50 people, and the death toll could rise.
Chabahar’s governor, Ali Bateni, told state news agency IRNA that there were two attackers, but only one explosion. He also said that the “main culprit” behind the bombing has been arrested.
The New York Times notes that Chabahar has not been a frequent target of the terrorist attacks that have plagued the Sistan-Baluchistan Province. Many of the attacks have taken place in the provincial capital, Zahedan.
Jundallah, which claims to fight persecution of the Sunni Baluchi population in Iran, claimed responsibility for a July attack in Zahedan that killed 27 people, The Christian Science Monitor reported. That bombing, also at a Shiite mosque, targeted members of the elite Revolutionary Guard Corps and was billed as revenge for Iran’s execution of Jundallah’s leader. Abdolmalek Rigi, executed in June, was captured in February when the plane he was on was forced to land while flying from Dubai to Kyrgyzstan.
The Monitor reported at the time that the capture was a coup for Iran, which has long alleged that the group, which operates partly from bases in Pakistan, has Western backing. Iran’s intelligence minister said at the time that Rigi had been on a US military base in Afghanistan, and was cooperating with American, British, and Israeli intelligence services.
Such groups and alleged US, British, and other intelligence and military support for them have been the subject of speculation for years, as Washington spoke openly about conducting “regime change” in Iran during the administration of President George W. Bush. Several news reports have described CIA and other backing for Jundallah, which often operated from Pakistan. ABC News reported in April 2007 that Jundallah “has been secretly encouraged and advised by American officials since 2005,” based on US and Pakistani intelligence sources.
“US officials say the US relationship with Jundallah is arranged so that the US provides no funding to the group, which would require an official presidential order,” according to ABC. It quoted “tribal sources” saying that “money for Jundallah is funneled to its youthful leader [Rigi] through Iranian exiles who have connections with European and Gulf states.”
The US has repeatedly denied any connection to the group. But speculation was fueled by the fact that Jundallah was not on the State Department’s list of groups designated as foreign terrorist organizations. The State Department added Jundallah to the list last month. The L.A. Times reported that some analysts took it as a gesture of goodwill toward Tehran at a time when Western powers are attempting to persuade Iran to conduct negotiations on its nuclear program.