By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, December 30, 2007
KARACHI, Pakistan, Dec. 29 -- Nationwide rioting brought life in Pakistan to a standstill Saturday and forced government officials to consider delaying next month's elections, as discord spread over the killing of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto.
The death toll from the violence climbed above 40, with many people fearfully staying indoors while others ventured out to torch government buildings or battle with police firing tear gas.
The unrest turned streets in this normally frenetic city, Pakistan's largest, into empty expanses of asphalt. Dozens of burned-out cars and buses lay by the sides of the roads, evidence of nighttime mobs that roamed the city in defiance of soldiers and police.
Food shortages were reported in some areas of the country, and most gas stations and shops were closed. With a large percentage of the population idle and angry, there was concern Saturday that the violence could worsen.
"These are the sentiments of the people. This is their natural reaction," said Zahid Hussain, 30, a truck driver who had pulled over Thursday night in rural Sindh province, Bhutto's stronghold, and had not moved since for fear of attack.
Pakistanis are scheduled to go to the polls Jan. 8, but with the nation on edge, the election commission was expected to convene an emergency meeting Monday to decide whether to postpone the long-awaited vote. Rioters have targeted the commission's offices, and several have been burned to the ground.
The elections, which will determine who controls Parliament and shares power with President Pervez Musharraf, are seen both here and abroad as a test of Musharraf's willingness to move toward restoring democracy. In addition to the concerns about violence marring the vote, opposition groups have long said they believe that Musharraf and his allies plan to rig the balloting.
Bhutto had been campaigning for a third term as premier at a rally in the garrison city of Rawalpindi on Thursday when she was killed as her bulletproof sport-utility vehicle was about to leave. The attack -- gunshots and a suicide bombing -- was carried out in broad daylight before hundreds of witnesses. But the exact circumstances of her death remained a source of major controversy Saturday.
The government has blamed Islamic extremists and said Bhutto died because her head hit a lever of her vehicle's sunroof. Her supporters have blamed Musharraf's allies and say she was shot in a well-coordinated assassination.
On Saturday, while paying his respects to her family in its ancestral home, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif said the government should be held responsible for Bhutto's death.
Bhutto loyalists turned their attention Saturday to the question of who will succeed her as leader of her Pakistan People's Party. But many in the party concede that they are still distracted by the trauma of her death.
"Maybe the emotion won't last that long, but right now, I don't care about the People's Party. I don't care about Pakistan. The only thing I care about right now is that they have killed my sister," said Nadeem Qamar, a doctor and a party stalwart for decades.
Bhutto's father founded the Pakistan People's Party in 1967 as a counterweight to the all-powerful Pakistani army, and she took over soon after he was hanged by a military dictator in 1979. But Bhutto, who held the official title of party chairperson for life, did not leave behind an obvious successor.
The choice is considered crucial at a time when the party is playing a central role in the movement against the deeply unpopular Musharraf, who resigned last month as army chief but managed to engineer a new term as president.
Bhutto's 19-year-old son, Bilawal, is scheduled to make his mother's final wishes public at a news conference Sunday. Bilawal himself is considered a possible heir to the dynastic PPP. Bhutto's husband, Asif Ali Zardari, is thought by party insiders to be a likely candidate to lead the party for the next several years, until Bilawal is older.
Zardari is a divisive figure whose name is associated with corruption allegations stemming from his wife's two terms as prime minister. Some members of the party fear it could split without Bhutto to unify factions that differ sharply on how best to challenge Musharraf.
While the party's top leaders have pushed to work for change from within the system, many in the rank and file are making a different choice. In Sindh province, rioters had left a wide swath of destruction Saturday, with still-burning fuel tankers and smoldering tires littering the highways. And young men wearing People's Party head scarves had set up dozens of impromptu checkpoints along the major roads, looking for targets.
A spokesman for the Interior Ministry, retired Brig. Javed Iqbal Cheema, said 174 banks had been burned and billons of rupees worth of property destroyed across the country.
The violence was met with threats of a stiffer government response.
"We are warning people to stay calm and restrain themselves," Cheema said. "They will be punished in the toughest way if it does not stop."
The army was already out in force in many areas of Sindh on Saturday and appeared to be regaining control there. Elsewhere, however, the unrest intensified. In Rawalpindi, riot police and People's Party supporters clashed near the spot where Bhutto was killed.
In the eastern city of Lahore, workers slept in their offices because public transportation was shut down and many were unable to get enough gas in their cars to go home. Families brought blankets and pillows to the airport, where they waited for flights that never left. All cafes, movie theaters and markets remained closed in Lahore, the country's cultural capital.
"We had to cancel over 100 weddings in the heat of the season," said Ali Hassan, a manager at the Avari Hotel, where employees have been sleeping on cots.
"This is worse than the judicial crisis and worse than the emergency. We even called off all New Year's Eve parties. It's a sad and violent time for Pakistan," Hassan added.
Some people said they were profoundly frustrated by Bhutto's killing and wanted to get away -- for good.
"I travel abroad all the time, and I never thought of leaving my country until now," said Adnan Hassan, 37, an engineer who had waited for days for a flight from Lahore to Islamabad. "We had hopes that Pakistan would do better. But it's only getting worse."
Correspondent Emily Wax in Lahore and special correspondents Imtiaz Ali in Peshawar and Shahzad Khurram in Rawalpindi contributed to this report.