KABUL, Afghanistan — The blast rocked the historic old city at about 11:30 a.m., just as hundreds of Shiites were making their way to their most revered site in Kabul — the Abdul Fazl Ziyarat.
At least 58 people were killed and another 150 wounded, with the death toll rising by the hour. It was the biggest attack of the year in Kabul, and one of the worst in Afghanistan’s recent history.
Those in the area of the blast described scenes of mayhem, with blood and body parts scattered over a wide area. Photos of blood-stained children were being circulated via the internet within hours of the attack.
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No one immediately claimed responsibility; the Taliban, in fact, denied involvement and denounced the violence, saying in a statement that they had“sadly”learned of the bombing.
The US Embassy quickly released a statement strongly condemning the attacks, and promising continued support:
“The United States remains undeterred in standing with the Afghan people against the scourge of terrorism in our mutual aim of promoting peace and prosperity,” read the statement.
Tuesday is the feast of Ashura, or the 10th day of Maharram, when Shiites the world over commemorate the death of the Prophet Mohammad’s grandson, Imam Hussein, at the Battle of Karbala in 680 AD.
The festival marks one of the main divisions between the Sunni and Shiite sects of Islam, when Muslims separated in a bitter struggle over succession. To this day, some Sunnis call Shiites “infidels,” while Shiites insist that the Sunni caliphate is illegitimate, and only they have a direct link to the prophet.
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Ashura is always an anxious day. In Iraq, at least 28 people were killed in attacks on Shiites. In Afghanistan, another bomb in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif killed at least four. A bomb killed three in Kandahar on Tuesday as well, but it was unclear whether it had anything to do with Ashura.
The tension had been rising in Kabul for the past week; this Maharram has been the largest since the fall of the Taliban. Under the Taliban regime, Shiites were not allowed to celebrate their holy days; once the ban was lifted with the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001, Shiites were at last able to resume their observance of the feast.
One of the ways in which Shiites mark the event is by self-flagellation; the more extreme practitioners of the sect whip themselves with razor-tipped cables.
Things reached such a point that Abdul Karim Khalili, Afghanistan’s Second Vice President, established a blood bank two years ago, and told his fellow Shiites to donate their blood for a good cause during Maharram, rather than let it flow for nothing.
For the past decade the festivities have been getting more and more elaborate. Arches have been erected all over the city, and Kabul is dotted with long parades of flag-draped cars blaring messages through loudspeakers, snarling traffic and keeping many Kabul residents awake at night.
“I have exams, I have to study,” laughed one young Shiite university student, who lives in western Kabul. “But all night the parades were going past my window. I could not sleep at all.”
Others were not laughing.
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“Shiite intellectuals have been warning us not to get too loud, not to be too obvious,” said Abdul, a young Shiite journalist.“They said ‘you are asking for trouble.’”
Now there is trouble aplenty, and many are worried about more to come.
“If the Shiite clergy tell us ‘this is Sunnis attacking you,’ there will be more violence,” said Abdul, the young journalist.“If they say ‘it is fundamentalists attacking Islam,’then it will be quiet.”
The attacks were so disturbing that many were at some pains to shift responsibility to Afghanistan’s troublesome neighbors.
“In Afghanistan’s history there is no religious tension between Shiite and Sunni,”said Aref Rahmani, a lawmaker from Ghazni, who is also a Shiite. “I believe that those who created these tragedies in Kabul and Mazar are not Afghans. There are agents of neighboring countries who are disguising their extremism and fundamentalism and want to cause tension.”
But if allowed to continue he warned, such attacks could lead to Afghans turning on each other.
“These attacks have shocked all Afghans,” he said.“But if security officials let these types of incidents happen over and over again, it could certainly lead to a clash between religious sects.”
Ayatullah Faiz, a Shiite religious scholar, pointed his finger directly at Pakistan:
“I can say for sure that the hand of Pakistan is behind these events,” he said.“Without Pakistan we do not have religious clashes here. Just today a Sunni Mawlawi (religious title) came to our mosque and gave a wonderful speech about Imam Hussein. It is the enemy who wants us to fight with each other.”
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Iran has been closely involved with the Maharram festivities in Afghanistan this year. According to several sources in the Shiite community, Iran has given generous financial support for the construction of arches, and for the equipment necessary to organize the parades.
Some are worried that Iran may use the attacks to stir up more trouble between Sunnis and Shiites in Afghanistan.
“If the clergy start saying that this is Sunni against Shiite, it is because Iran is paying them to do it,”said one Kabul resident, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The attack has worried many in Kabul, both Shiite and Sunni. Most Shiite in Afghanistan are Hazaras, an ethnic group that has historically been oppressed in the country, relegated to menial jobs and kept from seats of power.
The Hazaras fared especially poorly under the Taliban, who are Sunni and predominantly Pashtun. Horrific massacres characterized the interaction of the two groups, and there is still bitterness between Hazaras and Pashtuns over the violence of the civil war years.
Today’s attack has given rise to fears that Kabul could be moving back to the bad old days of the civil war in the 1990s, when ethnic groups settled in tight communities for safety, and it was difficult to move from one part of town to another.
The blast comes just one day after the Bonn conference, when President Hamid Karzai warned the international community that Afghanistan could sink back into civil war if the international community abandoned it too quickly.
The violence of the civil war years spawned the Taliban movement. With the insurgency even now waiting in the wings for the international forces to go, today’s horrific incident could be the harbinger of worse days to come.
Kabul-based journalist Abdul Qayum Suroush contributed to this report.