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A complex suicide attack on a Shiite mosque in southern Afghanistan’s main city of Kandahar killed at least 65 worshipers Friday, breaking two months of relative peace in the Taliban’s historic stronghold and highlighting the threat posed by a spreading presence of Islamic State.

Islamic State claimed responsibility for the bombing on Saturday, saying two suicide bombers carried out the attack, according to a statement verified by SITE Intelligence Group. It came a week after another bombing by Islamic State killed some 100 people at a Shiite mosque in the northern city of Kunduz. The extremist group’s regional affiliate, Islamic State - Khorasan Province, or ISKP, has repeatedly targeted Afghanistan’s Shiite minority in recent months.

At least 65 people were killed in the attack, according to a person who attended a burial ceremony for the victims on Saturday. Over 70 people who were injured were admitted at Kandahar’s main hospital, Mirwais, said its chief doctor, Mohammad Qasam.

A person who was inside the mosque said hundreds of worshipers had gathered there at the time of the attack, during the weekly Friday sermon.

“The prayer had ended. We were preparing to leave the mosque when we heard gunfire outside. A few seconds later, there was a blast inside. I was close to the entrance and managed to escape quickly," said the witness. He said two suicide bombers detonated outside the mosque and a third blew himself up inside. He said there were explosions outside the mosque and then a suicide bomber blew himself up inside.

While both the Taliban and Islamic State adhere to a strict interpretation of Sunni Islam, the two groups have profound ideological differences and consider each other enemies. Though the Taliban persecuted Shiites in the past, they have since softened their position and say that, under their rule, the religious freedom of Afghanistan’s Shiite community will be safeguarded. Islamic State considers all Shiite Muslims infidels who should be killed.

The Taliban condemned the attack and directed their security forces “to find the perpetrators as soon as possible and bring them to justice," according to a statement released by the group’s chief spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahid.

The recent series of deadly bombings present a challenge to the Taliban government. Since the Taliban toppled the U.S.-backed Afghan republic on Aug. 15 and proclaimed a restored Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, improved security has been a key source of legitimacy for Afghanistan’s new rulers. Yet ISKP—the only significant militant group currently operating in Afghanistan—has struck many high-profile targets since then, including a bombing outside Kabul airport that killed 200 Afghans waiting to be evacuated and 13 U.S. service members.

Friday’s blast shows that the Taliban are struggling to guarantee security even in Kandahar, their historical stronghold.

“The Taliban have been dismissive of the Islamic State’s threat—and it is showing how wrong they are," said Asfandyar Mir, an Afghanistan expert at the United States Institute of Peace. “Carrying out this attack in the Taliban’s heartland is a clear signal that the Islamic State wants to take the fight to the Taliban, bleed their legitimacy and sovereignty over Afghanistan."

The mosque bombing interrupted a period of unusual peace in southern Afghanistan, home to some of the deadliest battlegrounds of the 20-year war waged by the U.S.-led coalition and its Afghan allies.

“When the Taliban took over the country, I thought we would be rid of war but now I think the situation may get even worse in the future," said Navid, a resident of Kandahar city who didn’t want his surname to be used. “The harsh truth, which we all have to accept, is that there is no peace in Afghanistan. We will never be able to live peacefully, neither under the previous government nor the current Islamic Emirate," he added.

Afghanistan has largely avoided the kind of sectarian strife that plagues much of the Muslim world. ISKP, which was formed by spinoff factions of Afghan and Pakistani Taliban in 2014, was the first group to systematically target Shiite Muslims, who make up around a fifth of Afghanistan’s population.

With the U.S. and its allies gone, many Shiites fear ISKP could further step up sectarian attacks as it seeks to assert itself more forcefully in the region.

“Everyone thought that it was calm now, that there was no war anymore," said Masooma, a teacher in Kandahar who lost four family members in Friday’s attack. “The Shiite community in Kandahar is terrified. We’re extremely fearful for the future."

ISKP presents another kind of threat to the Taliban: as the Islamist movement seeks to project a more moderate image in a bid to attract international aid and legitimacy, it risks alienating the support of its hard-line members, who could defect to Islamic State.

Tamim Asey, a former Afghan deputy defense minister and fellow at King’s College, London, says the conflict between the Islamist movements is just heating up.

“The recent ISKP attacks against Afghanistan’s Shiite minority, especially in Kandahar, are alarming signs of an upcoming jihadi fratricidal war for the control of Afghanistan," Mr. Asey said. “The Afghan Taliban lack the sophistication, capabilities and infrastructure to fight ISKP in Afghanistan."

This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text

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