(Reuters) - Pakistan's beleaguered prime minister headed to the southern port city of Karachi on Friday to woo back the region's dominant political party after it defected from the coalition over rising fuel prices, plunging the nation into a political crisis.
The latest bout of political instability has largely to do with control of Karachi where a triangular battle involving mohajirs, or the descendants of immigrants from India, ethnic Pashtuns and indigenous Sindhis has intensified in recent years.
Indeed, the "civil war" in Karachi as some call it, between the Urdu-speaking mohajirs and Pashtuns, who have arrived in droves following conflict on the Afghan border, has stoked concern that a nation created on the basis of religion was now tearing itself apart on ethnic lines.
The mohajirs constitute the largest single group in Karachi and are represented by the Muttahida Qaumi Movement(MQM) which quit Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani's coalition. They are descendants of refugees from northern India, who migrated to Karachi, Hyderabad and Sukkur in Sindh province, when Pakistan was formed in 1947.
Pakistan was the creation of the Muslim elite from British-ruled India. In the initial years after the formation of Pakistan, when Karachi was the capital, the mohajir elite dominated political power in Pakistan.
After the Pakistani army under General Ayub Khan seized power in the late 1950s, the mohajirs found themselves increasingly marginalized by a combination of Punjabis and Pashtuns. After the capital was shifted from Karachi to Islamabad, the mohajirs lost most of their political power and were reduced to insignificance in the federal bureaucracy.
Since then, they have fought to consolidate their power base on Karachi, both through the ballot as well as in street battles with principally the Awami National Party, the main Pashtun group, but also sometimes clashed with supporters of the ruling Pakistan People's Party as well as Sindhi nationalist groups.
Karachi's melting pot has become more volatile following an influx of Pashtuns from the northwest Khyber-Pakhtoonkhwa province, and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas along the border, since the army started operations against the Pakistan Taliban in 2008 and the United States stepped up drone strikes. Many Pashtuns have sympathies with the Deobandi Taliban, the MQM says, warning that the metropolis was slowly being Talibanised.
According to some estimates, 3.5 million Pashtuns live in Karachi, making it the largest concentration of Pashtuns anywhere.
Karachi's Citizens-Police Liaison, a watchdog, says more than 1,100 people were killed in ethnic violence in the city in 2010, the worst toll in 15 years, with political and religious leaders among the victims.
Islamist militant violence in Karachi also increased in 2010 ending a period of quiet in the preceding two years when guerrilla groups focused more on cities in the northwest. In November, a suspected Taliban suicide car bombing demolished a crime investigation department compound where senior militants are interrogated. At least 18 people were killed and 100 wounded.
Karachi, according to some officials, contributes 68 percent of the government's total revenue and 25 percent of gross domestic product. It is home to the central bank, the main stock exchange and is also the main industrial base.
The country's two main ports are in Karachi and it is the major transit point for supplies for U.S. forces in Afghanistan. The U.S. Defense Department says the U.S. military sends 75 percent of supplies for the Afghan war through or over Pakistan, including 40 percent of fuel. Most of it is shipped through Karachi
Editing by Robert Birsel