The hitman did not bother to knock. He announced his arrival by firing a volley of shots through Salima Khans front door. Bullets ricocheted as she cowered in the kitchen. One of the rounds struck Zainab, her bright-eyed five-year-old, in the arm. A Molotov cocktail shattered and their tiny home began to burn. The familys crime: belonging to the wrong ethnicity. They want to kill all the Pashtun, says Mrs Khan, wiping away tears with her headscarf as she cradles her daughter. I pray to God there will be peace in Karachi. The charred body of a rickshaw driver from their Orangi Town neighbourhood was dumped in the street a day after the attack a grisly portent that the gunmen will return. A slow-burning war for control of one of the great economic engines of south Asia has burst back into life with a ferocity not seen since the mid-1980s, when Pakistans army acted to quell clashes on Karachis streets. The killings are the bloody dividends of a long-running struggle between rival political parties with roots in the ethnic Pashtun and Mohajir communities. This summer, the violence has hit new heights. Shootings and grenade attacks in labyrinthine slums and hillside shanty towns claimed more than 300 lives in July, one of the worst monthly tolls on record. The deaths took the total killed in Karachi this year to more than 800, according to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, a non-governmental organisation. New murders occur daily. Asif Ali Zardari, the unpopular president, has proved powerless to pacify the countrys biggest city the heart of its $160b economy, the seat of its stock exchange and the home of an important Arabian Sea port. Rehman Malik, the interior minister, earned widespread ridicule when he played down the significance of the mayhem by suggesting 70 per cent of the murders were committed by angry girlfriends or wives. In fact, the violence is a warning light for long-term prospects for stability in a country. Like no other city, Karachi distils the mix of gun politics, ethnic tensions, sectarian strife, state weakness, militancy and organised crime that makes the whole country so fragile. It is these trends that will determine whether Pakistans hesitant journey from military rule to a semblance of democracy will deliver greater stability or deeper fragmentation. We are not evolving into nationhood. Were breaking up into ethnic groupings, says Amber Alibhai, secretary-general of Shehri, a pressure group that campaigns against rampant land-grabbing in the city. The social contract between the citizens among themselves and between the state has been destroyed. Karachi was born on an unprepossessing mudflat in the Indus river civilisation then known as Sindh. Karachis population, 450,000 people at independence in 1947, is now estimated at as many as 18m. Although it has long bubbled with ethnic and sectarian tension, it has a reputation as one of the countrys more liberal, secular cities. Karachi has, however, suffered its share of militant attacks including a spectacular raid on a naval base launched in retaliation for bin Ladens death. The clearest narrative in the present tangle of troubles is a variant of the age-old struggle between incumbent and challenger. Battle lines in city politics are marked by flags strung from lamp posts and mobile phone masts, staking the contenders territory. Fluttering banners in red, white and green belong to the incumbent the Muttahida Quami Movement, the citys dominant political force. The MQM draws the core of its support from the Mohajir. The partys strength is reflected in the Sindh provincial assembly, where it occupies 28 of Karachis 33 seats. Crimson flags flying across poorer neighbourhoods belong to the challenger the Awami National party. The ANP draws the bulk of its support from a growing influx of Pashtun migrants from north-western regions bordering Afghanistan. Many work as labourers, security guards or drive multicoloured buses emblazoned with dazzling mandalas, peacocks and lions. Complicating the picture further, Zardaris ruling Pakistan Peoples party has its roots in Sindh. To shore up his majority in Islamabad, the president is constantly embroiled with his Karachi rivals in revolving-door coalition politics. The latest wave of killings erupted last month after the MQM quit Zardaris coalition. Violence has tended to spike in the city when the party is in opposition in the capital, which underscores its relevance on the national stage. As always, each party accused the other of igniting the tinderbox. In a country facing a rising tide of extremism, the MQM sees itself as a bastion of secular, middle-class values pointing proudly to its record in bolstering crumbling infrastructure. But critics believe the party is inextricably linked with the violence. Murders of activists from all sides began to increase sharply in May 2007 and rose rapidly after 2008 national elections, when the ANP won its first two city seats. Many believe the MQM is determined to prevent the upstart gaining a foothold. What is beyond dispute is that politics does not get much dirtier than it does in Karachi. Public debate revolves around the form local government should take with different parties pushing models that will enhance their opportunities for patronage. The violence reflects a more fundamental struggle: a multi-sided war for control of votes, land and protection rackets. Shadowy alliances between power-brokers, slum landlords, drug barons and gun-runners sharpen its deadly edge. Killers do not always stop at murder. They chop the bodies into pieces and put them in sacks and throw them in the street, says Seemin Jamali, who manages the casualty ward at a Karachi hospital. The brutal spasms have acquired a self-reinforcing quality. The more fear people feel, the more they turn to parties for protection and the more powerful their leaders become. Killings are no longer confined to party activists: simply being Pashtun or Mohajir is enough. Commuters, taxi drivers and shopkeepers are all considered fair game. The ethnic Baloch community and other minorities are being sucked in. Bullet holes puncturing shop shutters in the ANP-dominated Qasbar district in Orangi Town bear witness to recent killings. Mohammed Ali, a burly, thickly bearded property dealer, is scared to enter an MQM stronghold a few minutes walk away. Theyd take a shotgun and bang, bang theyd kill us because we are Pashtun, he says. Similar fears haunt the Mohajir. Malik Mohammed Jamil, a car-parts dealer, says he lost five relatives when gunmen stormed the market housing their shop last year an attack blamed on Baloch activists. Dozens of traders have since applied for gun licences. This kind of thing has made us feel as if were not citizens of Pakistan, he says. The country has been carved up between Punjabis, Sindhis and Pashtuns. With the state unable even to provide reliable electricity, expectations for justice are low. Outgunned and undermanned, the police are afraid to arrest assassins protected by powerful politicians. We need the nod from the government to start looking for the people who are behind the targeted killings, says a security official. Were not getting it. Those who speak out risk being silenced. Nisar Baloch, who led a campaign to stop a cartel of illegal land-grabbers encroaching on a park, was shot in 2008 while going to buy a newspaper to read an account of a press conference he had given. The government response to the current outbreak has a repetitive feel. As usual, Islamabad has ordered paramilitary rangers to sweep neighbourhoods in search of perpetrators. Talks have been held with city politicians. Rewards have been offered for mobile phone pictures of suspects. But most believe it is only a matter of time before the next bout of killing. There is another side to Karachi. Say goodbye to split ends in 14 days promise banners advertising shampoo, appealing to a growing middle class. Well-heeled diners pay Rs300 ($3.50) to enter the eateries at the new Port Grand mall, developed on a forgotten patch of seafront. Bloodshed may shut shops for a day but the city never pauses for long. Such resilience is the citys greatest asset. The question is whether its wells of tolerance run as deep. A unified, thriving Karachi would be a beacon of hope for a more peaceful Pakistan. For now, the chasms dividing the city, and the country, grow a little deeper with each freshly dug grave. Why 'distance does not matter for the citys most potent electoral force In the cut-throat world of Karachi politics, one man reigns supreme. Altaf Hussain, head of the MQM, exerts an almost mesmerising hold over his followers. His feat is all the more remarkable because he has not set foot in the city in 20 years. Operating from a house in north London, he addresses rallies in Karachi by telephone. Tens of thousands sit cross-legged in rapt silence as his voice is broadcast from 4,000 miles away. Party lieutenants bestow gifts on newlyweds in his name. Altafs acolytes defend his absence by pointing to the fate of Benazir Bhutto. His philosophy is enshrined in a ziggurat-shaped monument adorned with a sculpture of a fist and the slogan: Distance does not matter. Personality cults are a staple of Pakistani politics but the MQM phenomenon is unique. Now rarely depicted without his trademark aviator sunglasses, Altaf rose from modest origins to start his political career while a pharmacy student. He founded the party in the mid-1980s to address a sense of disenfranchisement among the Mohajir Urdu families who arrived from India at partition in 1947. MQMs white-collar activists view their party as a bulwark of secularism against the extremism. Espousing a middle-class work ethic, they believe the MQM can serve as an antidote to the deadening grip of Pakistans feudal-style politics. To its critics, the party is more akin to a crime syndicate. With its history of internecine violence, it is blamed for the deaths of hundreds of opponents. Some residents say that thugs enforce protection rackets to fill its coffers and that some members are in cahoots with land-grabbers and worse. As the rival Awami National party has gained strength through an inflow of Pashtun migrants, the MQM has become embroiled in a bloody and ethnically tinged power struggle. At Nine Zero, its heavily guarded headquarters, meeting rooms bustle with petitioners seeking assistance from the partys cradle-to-grave welfare system, which supports clinics and funeral services. For these people the MQM has in effect supplanted Pakistans state. In their more modest compound, ANP activists are convinced that the MQM wants to deny the Pashtun a rightful share of power but demography, they say, is on their side. One of my colleagues has eight boys. Even if six are killed, two will survive, says Bashir Jan, a senior ANP official. I have seven children, he adds, and laughs. Financial Times