Bhutto Assassination Sparks Chaos

2007-12-29

Richard Moore

Original source URL:
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/12/27/AR2007122700122.html

Bhutto Assassination Sparks Chaos

Former Premier, Hit by Gunfire After Rally, Was a Key to Pakistan's Struggle for
Democracy

By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, December 28, 2007; A01

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.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company
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