Bhutto assassination sparks disarray
By Salman Masood and Carlotta Gall
Published: December 28, 2007
RAWALPINDI, Pakistan: Benazir Bhutto, the Pakistani opposition leader and twice-serving prime minister, was assassinated Thursday evening as she left a political rally here, a scene of fiery carnage that plunged Pakistan deeper into political turmoil and ignited widespread violence by her enraged supporters.
Bhutto, 54, was shot in the neck or head, according to differing accounts, as she stood in the open sunroof of a car and waved to crowds. Seconds later a suicide attacker detonated his bomb, damaging one of the cars in her motorcade, killing more than 20 people and wounding 50, the Interior Ministry said.
News of her death sent angry protesters swarming the emergency ward of the nearby hospital, where doctors declared Bhutto dead at 6:16 p.m. Supporters later jostled to carry her bare wooden coffin as it began its journey to her hometown, Larkana, in southern Pakistan, for burial. In Karachi and other cities, frenzied crowds vented their rage, blocking the streets, burning tires and throwing stones.
The death of Bhutto, leader of Pakistan's largest political party, throws Pakistan's politics into disarray less than two weeks before parliamentary elections scheduled for Jan. 8 and just weeks after a state of emergency was lifted. There was immediate speculation that elections would be postponed and another state of emergency declared.
A deeply polarizing figure, Bhutto spent 30 years navigating the turbulent and often violent world of Pakistani politics, becoming in 1988 the first woman to lead a modern Muslim country.
She had narrowly escaped an assassination attempt upon her return to Pakistan two months ago. Her death now presents President Pervez Musharraf with one of the most potent crises of his turbulent eight years in power, and Bush administration officials with a new challenge in their efforts to stabilize a front-line state — home to both Al Qaeda and nuclear arms — in their fight against terrorism.
The attack bore hallmarks of the Qaeda-linked militants in Pakistan. But witnesses described a sniper firing from a nearby building, raising questions about how well the government had protected her in a usually well-guarded garrison town and fueling speculation that government sympathizers had played a part.
On Thursday evening, officials from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Homeland Security issued a bulletin to local law enforcement agencies informing them about posts on some Islamic Web sites saying that Al Qaeda was claiming responsibility for the attack, and that the plot was orchestrated by Ayman al-Zawahri, the group's second-ranking official.
One counterterrorism official in Washington said that the bulletin neither confirmed nor discredited these claims. The official said that American intelligence agencies had yet to come to any firm judgments about who was responsible for Bhutto's death.
As world leaders lined up to express outrage at the killing of arguably Pakistan's most pro-Western political figure, a grim-faced President George W. Bush said that the best way to honor her would be "by continuing with the democratic process for which she so bravely gave her life."
Speaking to reporters while vacationing at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, Bush attributed Bhutto's death to "murderous extremists who are trying to undermine Pakistan's democracy." He telephoned Musharraf several hours after the attack.
Musharraf went on national television on Thursday evening, describing the killing as "a great national tragedy" and announcing a three-day national mourning. He called it a terrorist attack and vowed to continue to fight to root out the terrorists. "I appeal to the nation to remain peaceful and show restraint," he said.
Despite the president's appeal, politicians and government officials said they feared more violence in the coming days from those protesting her death, but also from militants who would try to take advantage of the uncertain situation.
One former government minister said the backlash against Musharraf could make his position untenable. "Musharraf will not be able to control the situation now," he said.
Before her return in October, Bhutto had spent nearly eight years in self-imposed exile to avoid corruption charges stemming from her time as prime minister in the 1990s. Her return had been promoted by Washington as part of an agreement to share power with Musharraf and rescue his increasingly unpopular government by giving it a more democratic face.
She was a leading contender for prime minister in the Jan. 8 elections, campaigning as an advocate for Pakistan's return to party politics after eight years of military rule under Musharraf, who relinquished his military post only this month. She also presented herself as the candidate who could best combat growing militancy in Pakistan.