Wednesday, April 23, 2014
KARACHI, Pakistan — Protests and rioting spread across Pakistan after the assassination Thursday of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto, the charismatic yet divisive former prime minister considered by Western leaders and her many supporters to have been the best hope for bringing stability and full democracy back to Pakistan.
Her death plunged the troubled country into even deeper turmoil, raising questions about the possible postponement of parliamentary elections Jan. 8 and the future of embattled President Pervez Musharraf, a U.S. ally in the war on terror who is already deeply unpopular among Pakistanis.
Immediately after Bhutto was killed in the army garrison town of Rawalpindi -- shot as she waved to supporters from her vehicle just before a suicide blast killed at least 20 supporters at a campaign rally -- supporters began blaming Musharraf for her death and screaming slogans against him.
Bhutto was a regal, dominating figure who had studied at Harvard, won fame as the first female leader of a Muslim nation and came from a family long associated with power and tragedy. Her death was a setback for U.S. policy in a country that the Bush administration depends on in its global war on terror.
Bhutto, 54, who twice served as prime minister, had returned from exile in October largely with the backing of U.S. officials, who promoted a power-sharing deal between her and Musharraf. They felt her anti-militant stance and popularity would bolster stability in the nuclear-armed nation.
In Washington, the Bush administration scrambled Thursday to conceive an alternative plan to the hopes they placed in Bhutto. U.S. officials also were studying the implications for the huge amount of financial and counter-terrorism assistance given to Pakistan in hopes the country would help contain resurgent al-Qaida and Taliban militants along the country's border with Afghanistan.
In Texas, President Bush interrupted a vacation to condemn Bhutto's murder, calling on Pakistanis to continue to press for democracy.
''We urge them to honor Benazir Bhutto's memory by continuing with the democratic process for which she so bravely gave her life,'' Bush said at his Texas ranch, before speaking briefly to Musharraf by phone.
Musharraf, who had been facing his biggest political crisis since seizing power in a bloodless military coup in 1999, met with top advisers throughout the day Thursday, officials said. In a brief address to the nation, he blamed ''terrorists'' for the killing and declared three days of mourning. He also appealed for calm.
But sporadic rioting and protests broke out in at least five large Pakistani cities. In Karachi, where Bhutto grew up, supporters set fire to cars and tires, and at least nine people were killed and 21 wounded in sporadic gunfire. The home of a ruling party member was burned to the ground.
The city of Hyderabad was lit up with flames. In Rawalpindi, protesters marauded through the streets. Across Pakistan, supporters ran outside, chanting slogans against Musharraf, ripping down posters from his ruling party and trying to destroy offices of Musharraf loyalists.
Friends, and many political enemies, reacted with shock and tears to the death of Bhutto, whose family has figured in a long history of misfortune and political intrigue in Pakistan.
Her father, who founded her Pakistan People's Party and served as president and prime minister, was hanged in 1979 after being deposed in an army coup. Her two brothers were killed mysteriously.
Starting in 1979, she spent years under house arrest and in prison under military rule. After serving two terms as prime minister in the late 1980s and early 1990s, she fled Pakistan under the shadow of corruption charges and spent eight years in self-imposed exile, vehemently denying the graft accusations against her and her husband.
On Thursday, no one claimed responsibility for the attack. But among most Pakistanis, blame immediately fell on two suspects -- the government, especially the country's powerful intelligence agencies, and Islamic militants, who objected to a liberal-leaning woman leading the country and whom Bhutto strongly opposed.
Husain Haqqani, an international-relations professor at Boston University and a former adviser to Bhutto, accused Musharraf's government of complicity in the assassination, especially considering the earlier suicide attack in October, which is still unsolved. He also predicted greater upheaval in the coming days.
''I'm not saying Musharraf is behind it, but he is responsible for not giving her the security she required and treating her security as a political issue rather than a human one,'' Haqqani said.
If protests and unrest now sweep the country and the army is called out to stop them, Musharraf could find himself in an increasingly difficult position, analysts said.
Since Musharraf recently declared emergency rule for six weeks to offset widespread challenges to his power, his already low standing among ordinary Pakistanis has fallen even further. His decision last month to give up his controversial second role as army chief transferred some of his authority to his military successor but did little to quell the country's discontent.
Although the army leadership continues to publicly support Musharraf, analysts say leaders would not be pleased if forced to send troops into the streets to put down protests. Twice in the country's history, a military ruler has been asked to step down by the army after mass rioting.
With unrest spreading and potentially threatening any political gatherings, holding parliamentary elections as scheduled appeared unlikely to most Pakistanis. A leader of a political party allied with Musharraf called for elections to be delayed up to three months and said the party would stop campaigning.
When Bhutto was allowed to return home from exile 10 weeks ago, a suicide attack killed at least 140 people at her homecoming procession. She received repeated death threats, but she dismissed them and said God would protect her.
Just before Bhutto was killed Thursday, she addressed a rally in Rawalpindi. After her speech, wearing her traditional white head scarf that kept slipping to her shoulders, she stepped into her armored car and then stood up through the sunroof to wave at supporters. She was shot in the neck and chest, witnesses said. Then a suicide bomb exploded, killing at least 20 supporters and police, party leaders said.
Her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, and their three teenage children flew to Pakistan from Dubai early today to take Bhutto's body to her family's ancestral home in Larkana -- to be buried near her father, in the shrine that she built for his body.
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George W. Bush