By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, December 29, 2007
LARKANA, Pakistan, Dec. 28 -- Waving colorful party flags and venting rage at the government, tens of thousands of followers of Benazir Bhutto gave her a boisterous farewell at her funeral Friday. A day after the former prime minister's assassination, unrest spread to many parts of the country, and the government blamed the killing on an Islamic extremist linked to al-Qaeda.
With a minimum of formal ritual, Bhutto's coffin was lowered into a grave dug in the floor of the Bhutto family's marble-domed mausoleum. Mourners crowded close to the coffin, which was interred quickly, in line with Islamic custom. A few feet away stood the elaborate memorial of her father, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, another former prime minister.
Elsewhere, particularly in Bhutto's home province of Sindh, violence raged for a second day. Pro-Bhutto demonstrators torched a train, banks, a prison and police checkpoints. Major roads were blocked with burning tires, and shops were shuttered. More than a dozen people were killed in the unrest, which included running gun battles between rioters and police.
While Bhutto's supporters continued to blame the government -- especially allies of President Pervez Musharraf -- for her killing, security officials said Friday they had found evidence that Islamic extremists from al-Qaeda and the Taliban had organized the fatal attack.
An Interior Ministry spokesman, Brig. Javed Iqbal Cheema, said at a news conference that security personnel had intercepted a conversation in which Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud "congratulated his people for carrying out this cowardly act."
According to a transcript the government released, Mehsud is told by another party to the conversation, "They were our men there," and he remarks: "It was a spectacular job. They were very brave boys who killed her."
Mehsud, a leading Taliban commander in the tribal area of South Waziristan, is widely believed to have contacts with al-Qaeda. He has not asserted responsibility for the attack and had taken the unusual step of denying an earlier government claim that he was targeting Bhutto.
U.S. intelligence officials expressed increasing confidence that the attack had been carried out by insurgents with ties to al-Qaeda, although they cautioned that there was no definitive proof. They called Mehsud a "plausible" suspect but declined to comment on whether intercepted communications linked him to Bhutto's slaying.
The Bush administration had helped engineer Bhutto's return from exile in October in hopes her presence would help end months of instability in Pakistan, a key U.S. ally in the war against Islamic extremists. Bhutto left no clear successor as head of her Pakistan People's Party, and fear mounted in its ranks Friday that the group would splinter.
Speculation continued that Jan. 8 parliamentary elections in which the party is running would be canceled, but officials in the capital, Islamabad, reiterated Friday that the vote would proceed as planned.
New debate began over the circumstances of Bhutto's assassination as she left a political rally. Cheema, the Interior Ministry spokesman, said at his news conference that Bhutto had not been killed by bullets or shrapnel, as initially reported, but had hit her head on a sunroof lever as a bomb blast rocked her vehicle and she ducked for cover from the attack.
"The lever struck near her right ear and fractured her skull," Cheema said. "There was no bullet or metal shrapnel found in the injury."
That explanation was hotly disputed by Bhutto's allies, who said it tended to excuse what they called abysmally inadequate security for Bhutto. They said she had been killed in a well-coordinated strike by people who knew what they were doing.
"It was a targeted, planned killing," said Babar Awan, a top official in Bhutto's party and a criminal lawyer. Awan said that he had seen Bhutto's body and that she had two clearly defined bullet wounds -- with entry and exit points. He said he believed there had been more than one gunman because the bullets -- one striking the top of the head and the other the neck -- had come in from completely different angles.
Bhutto was buried without an autopsy, and the scene of the attack was almost immediately hosed down, before any forensic examination could be carried out. As a result, the exact circumstances of Bhutto's death are likely to remain a mystery, another in a long line for Pakistan.
Bhutto had just finished addressing a campaign rally in the garrison city of Rawalpindi on Thursday when she climbed into her bulletproof sport-utility vehicle, which began to pull away. As she left, she put her head out through the sunroof and started waving to the crowd. Witnesses reported hearing three to five shots, then seeing Bhutto fall back into the vehicle.
Seconds later, they said, a suicide bomber detonated his charge near the vehicle. Some witnesses reported that the gunman and the bomber were the same person and that he set off the explosives as he was being tackled by Bhutto's security guards. Officials said the blast killed more than 20 people.
People who had been aides to Bhutto also reacted skeptically to government officials' claims that they had cracked the case and that Islamic extremists were responsible. "We reject the government's version. It seems to be an attempt to protect the real culprits," said party spokesman Farhatullah Babar. He did not elaborate.
After her homecoming procession was attacked in October, Bhutto said she believed that people associated with "the establishment" -- code in Pakistan for the military and the intelligence services -- had been behind that strike. She also blamed Musharraf's political allies, who she said were desperate to keep her out of power.
Those beliefs were starkly evident in Bhutto's home province of Sindh on Friday. In cities including Karachi and Hyderabad, pro-Bhutto rioters ran through the streets, attacking buildings with even a tangential connection to the government and sending thick plumes of smoke into the sky. The government deployed paramilitary forces, and by Friday night a tense calm prevailed in many areas.
In Bhutto's ancestral home of Larkana, an impoverished agricultural region in northern Sindh, protesters spent Thursday night trashing the downtown shopping district, leaving residents to pick up the pieces Friday.
"This damages our own people," said Ali Hasan Pirzada, 25, whose cellphone shop was devastated in the rioting. "Benazir Bhutto would not have supported such a thing." Pirzada said Musharraf's government had failed in its duty to provide security and "should resign and hand over power to the people."
That sentiment was echoed repeatedly several miles away at the Bhutto family tomb, where the woman who had headed Pakistan's most famous political dynasty for nearly three decades was laid to rest.
The crowd was awash in red, green and black -- the colors of the Pakistan People's Party. The coffin was wrapped in a PPP banner. On a day devoted to honoring the life of the former two-term prime minister of Pakistan, there was hardly a Pakistani flag to be seen. No government figures or government security forces were present.
Some mourners said that with Bhutto dead, they had little faith in their country. "The future of Pakistan is very dark," said Gul Mohammad Jakhrani.
The burial was almost completely lacking in formal ceremony or pomp. But it had the touches that were hallmarks of Bhutto's style -- masses of people swarming around, frenetic with energy and desperate for a glimpse. Instead of cheering, the crowd wailed in anguish and listened to somberly recounted memories of a woman many had known personally.
Bhutto's husband, Asif Ali Zardari, and her son, Bilawal, filled in dirt atop the coffin. A carpet of roses was deposited on the grave.
One mourner, Rajib Ali Samo, carried a placard bearing an image of his son, Nizamuddin, who had been killed by suicide attackers during Bhutto's homecoming in October.
Also on the placard was a tribute Bhutto had handwritten days later. "I have come to condole the martyrdom of a brave, innocent boy of 22 years who has lost his life in the movement to save democracy," she wrote. "His sacrifice should not go in vain."
Special correspondents Imtiaz Ali in Peshawar and Shahzad Khurram in Rawalpindi, and staff writer Joby Warrick in Washington contributed to this report.