By Abdul Qadir Sediqi and James Mackenzie
KABUL (Reuters) - Afghan police and volunteer groups of armed civilians tightened controls across the capital Kabul on Wednesday ahead of Ashura, the holiest day of the Shi'ite Muslim calendar, following a series of attacks on Shi'ite targets by Islamic State militants.
Armed men stood at key points in areas like Dasht-e Barchi, a zone in western Kabul where many members of the mainly Shi'ite Hazara minority live and where some 20 people were killed in a suicide attack on a wrestling club two weeks ago.
For Shi'ites, Ashura, on the 10th day of the month of Muharram, commemorates the martyrdom of Hussein, one of the grandsons of the Prophet Mohammad, and is marked by large public processions that have been targeted by attackers in the past.
"If my life is needed, I will not hesitate for the safety of our people," said Ghulam Yahya, a 22 year-old standing guard with an AK-47 automatic rifle.
"This gun was provided by the government but there are many people who voluntarily came out with their private weapons even with hunting guns to assist our security forces to assure our people's safety," he said.
No up-to-date census data exists for Afghanistan but different estimates put the size of the Shi'ite community at between 10-20 percent of the total population, mostly Persian-speaking Hazaras and Tajiks.
Afghanistan, a largely Sunni Muslim country, had not suffered the sectarian violence seen in countries like Iraq but hundreds of Shi'ites have been killed over recent years in attacks on shrines and other sites.
Reports that the government had distributed 500 weapons to Hazara groups for self-defence have fuelled worries, even among some Hazaras, about the potential for armed private groups to undermine the rule of law.
A senior official in the interior ministry denied the government had handed out weapons to Hazara groups but said security forces and the intelligence service were stepping up controls to head off any attack.
On Tuesday, officials said they had arrested 26 suspected militants from Islamic State, the Sunni militant group which has said its attacks on Shi'ite targets are retaliation for support it says is given to Iran by Afghan Shi'ites.
Arif Rahmani, a Hazara member of parliament, said the task of protecting the roughly 400 Shi'ite mosques in Kabul alone would far exceed the reach of any volunteer force but he said the government had no choice but to allow self-defence groups.
However, he said they should be incorporated into the regular security forces. "Powers for public protection have to be under the law."
(Editing by Kim Coghill)