By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, December 28, 2007
RAWALPINDI, Pakistan, Dec. 27 -- Benazir Bhutto, for decades the central figure in a tortured struggle to bring democratic rule to Pakistan, was assassinated Thursday afternoon as she waved to supporters after a political rally, plunging the country into new turmoil just days before scheduled elections.
The death of the former prime minister creates a massive political void in this nuclear-armed nation of 165 million people and opens the door to potentially greater violence in a year of almost nonstop tumult here. It leaves in tatters Washington's strategy of fighting extremism by pairing Bhutto with President Pervez Musharraf, a close U.S. ally who has been under siege in the streets for months.
Around the world Thursday, government leaders pleaded with Bhutto's countrymen to remain calm. In Texas, President Bush urged the Pakistani people "to honor Benazir Bhutto's memory by continuing with the democratic process for which she so bravely gave her life."
There was no immediate assertion of responsibility for the killing. Musharraf, who addressed the nation on television, condemned the assassination and blamed Islamic extremists. He declared three days of national mourning. But Bhutto's supporters pinned responsibility on allies of Musharraf, the former chief of the army. Partisans of the slain leader rioted in cities and towns across the country, burning police cars, looting shops and firing guns.
Thursday night, grieving supporters carried Bhutto's body in a plain wooden coffin from the hospital where she had been declared dead. Her body was taken to an airport and was being flown to her family's ancestral home in the Larkana district of southern Pakistan for burial at an as-yet-unannounced time.
Musharraf was closeted with advisers late Thursday, debating strategy. It was unclear whether the Jan. 8 parliamentary elections for which Bhutto was campaigning when she was killed would proceed; at least one major party vowed to boycott the vote.
"If there's a lot more violence, then it's possible the whole democratic process will be derailed," political analyst Hasan-Askari Rizvi said.
Other observers saw glimmers of conciliation. "This can turn into anarchy," said Talat Masood, a retired general and political analyst. "Or it can turn into something Benazir Bhutto could not achieve in life but may achieve in death. It could provide the momentum needed for a return to the rule of law and democracy. It could go either way."
Bhutto, 54, led one of Pakistan's most important political families. She had many fans but also persistent critics who accused her of corruption and derided her position in her party: chairperson for life.
She narrowly survived a similar assassination attempt just two months ago, when attackers killed more than 140 people in coordinated blasts targeting a homecoming procession shortly after she returned from eight years of exile. Since then, she had been campaigning across the country, hoping to win for a third time the job of prime minister, saying all the while that she knew she was likely to be attacked again.
Thursday's strike came at dusk, in a public park where another Pakistani prime minister, Liaquat Ali Khan, was assassinated in 1951. A few miles away is the site of the prison, now demolished, where Bhutto's father, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, was confined. He was president from 1971 to 1973 and then prime minister until 1977, when he was hanged by the military-led government that deposed him.
Benazir Bhutto, wearing a white head scarf, addressed a rally in the park, then got into her bulletproof sport-utility vehicle. She was being driven out of the park when she asked that the vehicle's sunroof be opened so she could bid thousands of supporters farewell, according to witnesses and several aides, including one who had been sitting next to her.
As she waved, three to five gunshots sounded, aides said. Bhutto sank back into her seat, just as a suicide bomber detonated explosives to the left of her vehicle. People inside the SUV said her face and neck were badly bloodied, apparently from the bullets. As blood poured from her wounds and pooled in the back seat, she lost consciousness, aides said, and never regained it.
The vehicle raced from the park toward Rawalpindi General Hospital, but it was too badly damaged from the blast to complete the journey; occupants had to hoist Bhutto into another vehicle as they desperately sought to get her medical care. At the hospital, a surgeon worked to save her, but she was declared dead on the operating table.
Thousands of supporters had gathered at the hospital by the time an official emerged to announce her death; the report triggered a roar of rage and grief.
Devastated supporters smashed the hospital's glass doors and stormed the building to try to view her body. As ambulances arrived with other casualties of the attack, the crowd tore down and burned campaign posters showing candidates from Musharraf's party. Yelling "Musharraf is a dog," they blamed him for Bhutto's death.
"Today there is no more Pakistan. The woman who has defended us has died," Sher Zaman said, as he beat his chest and tears streamed down his bearded face. "I'm 70 years old, but today I feel like an orphan."
Her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, said by telephone: "It's a very difficult time for the nation of Pakistan and it's a difficult time for our family. She was a brave lady and she left a legacy of bravery."
The suicide blast killed at least 20 people outside the car and wounded many others. Police were investigating whether the bomber had first shot Bhutto. Several witnesses said they believed the assailant had fired the shots and then, after being tackled by security personnel, detonated the bomb.
Earlier Thursday, at another preelection rally in this city south of Islamabad, a rooftop sniper opened fire on supporters of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, leaving four people dead and at least five injured.
There was no indication that the two attacks were coordinated. Sharif's supporters, too, blamed Musharraf's political allies and accused them of using violence to avoid being on the wrong end of a landslide in next month's vote.
Sharif, who had been barred from running for office, announced after Bhutto's assassination that his party would boycott the elections.
That vote, if it proceeds, will determine who serves as prime minister alongside the president. Musharraf has already been elected to a new, five-year term, although the vote was marred by controversy. Musharraf was probably on the verge of being disqualified by the Supreme Court when he declared a state of emergency Nov. 3, suspended the constitution and fired most members of the court. Moderate opponents responded with days of street turmoil. Islamic extremists, meanwhile, stepped up armed attacks.
The Bush administration had played a key role in brokering the agreement between Musharraf and Bhutto that enabled her to return to the country Oct. 18. Officials in Washington had hoped that an alliance of the two moderate leaders might create a robust political force to counter rising extremism in the country.
Despite Washington's efforts, there was intense and deep-rooted mistrust between the leaders; Bhutto had long assailed Musharraf as a military dictator, while he had referred to her two terms as prime minister in the late 1980s and 1990s as a period of "sham democracy."
Her relationship with Musharraf was complicated and constantly shifting and included both public hostility and private negotiation. After Musharraf declared emergency rule, Bhutto was placed under house arrest on two occasions but was allowed to make public appearances, attend receptions and receive high-level visitors in between.
Bhutto was running for Parliament, and her Pakistan People's Party had been faring well in recent polls. She may have had the support to become prime minister for a third term.
Bhutto's death leaves her party in disarray. The PPP, founded by her father, has long been synonymous with the Bhutto name. Her children are not yet old enough to inherit the mantle of party leadership, however, and there is no obvious successor from outside the family. Two brothers have died under mysterious circumstances.
"She was viewed as the most formidable threat by the pro-Musharraf forces in Pakistan," said Rizvi, the political analyst. "That leaves a void for the anti-Musharraf forces. They'll have a difficult time finding a successor."
Bhutto's public appearances in recent weeks had drawn large crowds and increasingly stringent security checkpoints. At a rally in Peshawar on Wednesday, police stopped a would-be bomber with explosives around his neck. Thursday's rally was not as large as expected, according to those present, apparently because people feared an attack.
Bhutto accused rogue government officials of conspiring with Islamic extremists to assassinate her. The government has vehemently denied the charge.
Distrusting the government, Bhutto relied for protection on her own heavily armed security guards, traveling in a white, bulletproof SUV. She complained at times that the government was not doing enough to ensure her safety.
CNN's Wolf Blitzer reported Thursday that in October, Bhutto sent an e-mail to her U.S. spokesman, Mark Siegel, in which she wrote that if something "bad" happened, Musharraf should be among the people held responsible. "I have been made to feel insecure by his minions," she wrote. Officials declined to provide her with jammers, to protect against roadside bombs, or four police vehicles to surround her SUV at all times, she wrote. Government officials say they protected her as best they could.
Because of security concerns, she had considered giving up political rallies in favor of less-dangerous campaign tactics, including tape-recorded messages. But large rallies form the fabric of political culture in Pakistan, and ultimately Bhutto could not stay away.
Those who had cheered for her at the rally followed her to the hospital, and wailed when they learned she had died.
"This is the height of brutality. They have hanged her father. They have killed her brothers. The government has killed all the good people of Pakistan," said Sarfraz Khan, a doctor. "Please pray for us. Pray for our poor country."
Special correspondents Shahzad Khurram in Rawalpindi and Imtiaz Ali in Peshawar, and staff writers Debbi Wilgoren and Pamela Constable in Washington contributed to this report.