Thursday, December 27, 2007

Bhutto assassination

An ugly action like this doesn't really bode well for Pakistani elections soon... Seems sometimes that both Pakistan and India sentenced themselves to years of difficulties politically, at least in terms of finding themselves a consistent and democratic leader, since partition. At 54, Benazir Bhuitto was killed earlier today at a rally in Pakistan. Needless to say, world attention has been drawn-- and even the US presidential wannabes are weighing in. Here's the basic info:

Pakistan's Bhutto Dies in Attack

December 27, 2007 12:53 p.m.

ISLAMABAD -- Former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was killed today in an apparent suicide attack in the military garrison town of Rawalpindi, according to her aides.

The death of the opposition leader plunges Pakistan into fresh turmoil, jeopardizing the country's planned return to a civilian-led democracy through elections scheduled for Jan. 8 and depriving President Pervez Musharraf of his most powerful potential ally in the battle against Islamic extremists.
The Pakistani opposition leader was killed in a gun and bomb attack after a rally in the city of Rawalpindi. Video courtesy of Reuters. (Dec. 27)

Ms. Bhutto was killed after addressing a campaign rally in Rawalpindi, outside the capital of Islamabad. As she was entering her car, Ms. Bhutto was struck in the head and neck with pellets that exploded from a vest worn by the bomber, according to Tariq Azim, former deputy minister of information, who said he had been briefed on the incident from Pakistan's ministry of interior.

Ms. Bhutto, who was 54 years old, was rushed to a hospital where she died from her injuries. More than 20 others died in the blast, and about 45 were injured according to Mr. Azim, who called it a "sad and tragic day for Pakistan."

Before the rally, Ms. Bhutto had met with visiting Afghan President Hamid Karzai at the end of his two-day visit here and told him that if she is elected prime minister she will work with him to fight terror. "We, too, believe that it is essential for both of our countries, and indeed the larger Muslim world, to work to protect the interest of Islamic civilization by eliminating extremism and terrorism," she said after their meeting.

Although her killers haven't been identified, political analysts and members of Ms. Bhutto's Pakistan's Peoples Party, or PPP, suspect Islamic militants, who attempted to assassinate her on her return to Pakistan in October and who have condemned her for support of a crackdown on pro-Taliban and pro-al Qaeda radicals and her perceived close relationship with Western powers, particularly the U.S.

Some PPP members are also blaming President Musharraf's government for the attack on Ms. Bhutto, alleging that Islamist militants have close ties to some members of Pakistan's military intelligence service. The party itself hasn't specifically blamed the government or any Islamist group.

As a claim from an al Qaeda-affiliated group zoomed around the Internet, a U.S. official said the claim was "plausible" but unconfirmed. "Militant groups would be in anyone's group of suspects," he added.

If that claim proves to be true, he said, it could strengthen Mr. Musharraf's hand in countering terrorism in the tribal areas, but the official said, "It's simply too early to draw any concrete conclusions."

New Framework

The incident puts Mr. Musharraf, a close U.S. ally in Washington's war on terror, in a tight political corner.

White House spokesman Scott Stanzel issued a statement saying: "We condemn the acts of violence which took place today in Pakistan." He added that President Bush himself would make a statement later in the day from his home in Texas. State Department spokesman Tom Casey told reporters the attack "demonstrates that there are still those in Pakistan who want to subvert reconciliation and efforts to advance democracy."

In recent days, many senior Bush administration officials were expressing optimism in the direction Pakistan was taking politically, banking on the power-sharing relationship emerging between Ms. Bhutto and Mr. Musharraf.

"It's nothing but bad news, as far as U.S. interests in Pakistan are concerned," said Paul Pillar, a former senior Middle East analyst at the CIA.

Ms. Bhutto, he said, was "the closest thing to a U.S. friend that we had" despite the post-9/11 relationship the U.S. had established with Mr. Musharraf. She represented an alternative to Mr. Musharraf's authoritarian rule, while still maintaining a willingness to work with him, Mr. Pillar said.

At least 20 people were killed in the attack.

Now, some analysts are warning her death will trigger an outpouring of antigovernment sentiment that will endanger other political campaigns and likely force the elections to be postponed. "It will be extremely difficult to hold elections now," says Hasan-Asakari Rizvi, a political analyst in Lahore and recently a visiting professor at Johns Hopkins University. "There will be violence, and clashes with security forces," he said.

Pakistan's Army Spokesman Maj. Gen. Waheed Arshad said the country's police were able to handle the security situation. He said that he wasn't aware of any talk of martial law. However, incidents of street violence have already occurred in Pakistan's commercial capital of Karachi, where some roads were blocked Thursday evening amid the sound of gunfire.

Some supporters questioned whether Ms. Bhutto was given adequate protection in Rawalpindi, which has also been the target of several recent suicide attacks. Ms. Bhutto had been the target of another suicide bomb during her tumultuous Oct. 18 homecoming to Karachi. An estimated 140 people died after a blast occurred near her vehicle.

Mr. Azim, the former government minister, said Ms. Bhutto had held several peaceful campaign rallies before the blast. But added, "There's no such thing as 100% full-proof security against suicide bombing."

Return From Exile

Ms. Bhutto returned from eight years in exile after reaching a deal with Mr. Musharraf to help guide the country toward civilian rule. But any prospective political alliance fell apart after the government declared a state of emergency on Nov. 3, detaining thousands of her supporters and thwarting her attempts to lead protest rallies. She was put under house twice, in two different cities. But in recent weeks, she's been largely able to campaign freely -- though under the constant threat of attacks from Islamic militants.

After Thursday night's bombing, people poured into the streets. In Rawalpindi, people vented their rage and grief by pounding on passing cars.

Ms. Bhutto's death is a huge loss for the PPP, one of the nation's largest grassroots political organizations that was once headed by her father, Zulifikar Ali Bhutto, who served as prime minister in the early 1970s. He was arrested by the military and then hanged in 1979, leaving the party mantle to his daughter. She would go onto serve as prime minister twice. But both times -- once in 1990 and later in 1996 -- her government was dismissed amid allegations of corruption.

It's unclear who will now take the mantle of the PPP and possibly run for prime minister in Ms. Bhutto's place.

"In this very personalized politics that prevail in Pakistan, one half of that is gone," Mr. Pillar said. "The Pakistan Peoples Party will still be around, but there is no one quite to fill her shoes."

During her exile, a new generation of PPP leadership was emerging. But there have been charges that Ms. Bhutto marginalized these new voices upon her return.

Ms. Bhutto's chief political rival during the 1990's, Nawaz Sharif, Pakistan's other two-time prime minister, also returned from exile recently. They both found common ground in their opposition to Mr. Musharraf and emergency rule. After emergency rule was lifted, Ms. Bhutto and Mr. Sharif agreed to lead their parties into next month's national parliamentary elections.

Impact for the U.S.

The U.S. could support a number of new approaches now inside Pakistan. One would be to reach out to some of the PPP's younger leadership in the hope that they could successfully lead the party in next month's election. The other would be to back Mr. Musharraf if he decides to declare martial law, potentially leading to the postponement of the elections.

U.S. officials have voiced repeated concerns that Pakistan's political turmoil could undermine counterterrorism operations against al Qaeda and the Taliban. In recent months, Islamist militants have increased attacks across Pakistan and gained control of territories normally outside their traditional stronghold along the Afghan-Pakistan border. They have also targeted major political figures representing both Mr. Musharraf's government and the opposition.

Intelligence agencies are "monitoring the situation," said Ross Feinstein, a spokesman for the director of national intelligence, who referred other questions of the White House and State Department.
• Bhutto Promises to Crack Down on Militants11
• Blast in Pakistan Tests Stability12
• Inside Pakistan's Drive to Guard A-Bombs13
• Bhutto Tells Musharraf to Resign14
• Bhutto's Reaction to Blast May Set Path for Pakistan15
• Bombs Target Bhutto Procession in Pakistan16

--Jay Solomon in Washington, Zahid Hussain in Karachi and the Associated Press contributed to this article.

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