Monday, December 31, 2007

Who Killed Benazir Bhutto? And Can Pakistan Survive This Latest Crisis?

Was al-Qaida Behind Pakistani Ex-PM's Assassination, Or Is the Musharraf Government to Blame? And If the Resulting Turmoil Escalates Into an All-Out Civil War, Who Will Control Pakistan's Nuclear Weapons?

 Benazir Bhutto moments before she made the fatal decision to stand and wave through the sunroof of her car.

Pakistani opposition leader and former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto is seen in one of the last photographs taken of her just moments before she was killed by an assassin Thursday at a political rally in Rawalpindi. The killer climbed aboard the back of Bhutto's sport-utility vehicle while she was standing up and waving to supporters through its sunroof, fired two shots at her, then set off a bomb, killing himself, Bhutto and 20 other people. Bhutto's assassination, coming just two weeks before crucial parliamentary elections, has plunged Pakistan into a new political crisis. (Photo: John Moore/Getty Images)

(Updated 5:30 a.m. EST Thursday, January 3, 2008)

By Skeeter Sanders

The assassination late last Thursday of Benazir Bhutto, the charismatic opposition leader and two-time former prime minister of Pakistan who had promised to restore democracy in a country long dominated by military rulers, has unleashed a wave of grief and fury, raising fears that the nuclear-armed nation could be pushed to the brink of civil war.

For the second time in less than two months, the world is forced to hold its collective breath as events threaten to spiral out of control, raising anew fears among Western security experts of Pakistan's nuclear weapons falling into the hands of al-Qaida-linked Islamic extremists.

After Bhutto's body was entombed Friday next to her father, the late former prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, at the family mausoleum in her hometown of Larkana, angry mobs accusing President Pervez Musharraf of complicity in Bhutto's murder have been on a rampage for the past three days, ransacking banks and burning train stations.

Rioting and street clashes have killed at least 40 people as of late Sunday afternoon, according to a senior security official. Security forces in Bhutto's home province of Sindh in southern Pakistan were ordered on Friday to shoot violent protesters on sight.

Residents of Karachi, Pakistan's largest city, cautiously emerged from their homes Sunday and struggled to find food and fuel amid the blackened buildings, shattered glass and burnt-out vehicles littering the streets. With police and troops patrolling, Karachi appeared quiet for the first time since Bhutto's assassination.

In the southern city of Hyderabad, Pakistani police opened fire on protesters Friday, wounding five people. Meanwhile, an explosion -- believed to be caused by a suicide bomber -- ripped through an election meeting in Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province, killing three people, including a candidate for the party that supports Musharraf.

Government, Opposition At Odds Over Who's Responsible for Bhutto's Murder

The question of exactly who is responsible for the ex-premier's murder during a political rally in Rawalpindi before crucial parliamentary elections -- originally scheduled for next Tuesday but now postponed until February 18 -- has become an increasingly volatile flashpoint of dispute between the Musharraf government and Bhutto's supporters.

The government says the killing was the work of militants linked to al-Qaida and its Taliban allies, pointing the finger of blame squarely at Baitullah Mehsud, leader of Tehrik-i-Taliban, a previously unknown coalition of Islamic militants.

Tehrik-i-Taliban guerrillas are believed by Islamabad to be concentrated along the northwestern Pakistan-Afghan border region long believed by the United States to be the hiding place of fugitive al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar. The group is committed to waging a jihad, or holy war, to overthrow Musharraf, the government says.

But Maulana Mohammed Umer, a spokesman for Mehsud, dismissed the government's allegations as "propaganda." Umer insisted to the Islamabad bureau of The Associated Press by telephone from the tribal region of South Waziristan that "We [Tehrik-i-Taliban] are only against America, and we don't consider political leaders of Pakistan [to be] our enemy."

Bhutto's supporters also cast doubts about the government's claim of an al-Qaida link and accused Islamabad of engaging in a cover-up of its own complicity in her assassination. "The story that al-Qaida or Baitullah Mehsud did it appears to us to be a planted story, an incorrect story, because they want to divert the attention," said Farhatullah Babar, a spokesman for Bhutto's party.

Meanwhile, there were numerous media reports on Monday that Pakistan will delay the elections by at least a month. The country's national election commission said it would make its announcement on Tuesday after assessing the security situation in the country, which has seen previous elections marred by bloodshed and allegations of widespread vote-rigging.

A government official told Agence France-Presse that it was "out of the question that the elections will be held on January 8, because of the widespread unrest that has directly affected election staff and vote preparations."

Exact Cause of Bhutto's Death Is Also a Bone of Contention

The government's report Friday that Bhutto's death was caused by smashing her head into her SUV's sunroof immediately after the bomb blast was also disputed by a Bhutto spokeswoman. Sherry Rehman, who accompanied Bhutto as she was rushed to the hospital, insisted that the former prime minister was shot in the back of her head before the bomb went off.

"She was bleeding profusely, as she had received a bullet wound in her neck," Rehman told the Melbourne, Australia newspaper The Age. "My car was full of blood. Three doctors at the hospital told us that she had received bullet wounds. I was among the people who gave her a final bath. We saw a bullet wound in the back of her neck."

Rehman openly accused the government of lying to the public and to the world media. "What the government is saying is actually dangerous and nonsensical," she said."They are pouring salt on our wounds. There are no findings, they are just lying."

Bhutto's party called Monday for a United Nations investigation into her death -- which a senior government official rejected out of hand, saying that Islamabad would object to any "outside interference" in Pakistan's internal affairs.

Bhutto Herself Feared Assassination By 'Rogue Elements' in Musharraf's Regime

Bhutto herself expressed fears that "rogue elements" in Musharraf's ruling party were plotting to kill her after she narrowly escaped an assassination attempt in October when a suicide bomber blew himself up just a few hundred feet from Bhutto during a triumphant homecoming parade in Karachi after she returned to Pakistan from self-imposed exile. About 150 people were killed in that attack.

It was disclosed on Friday that Bhutto sent an e-mail to an American friend shortly after the October assassination attempt that she asked to be released in the event of her murder. In the e-mail, sent to Mark Siegel, her friend and spokesman in the United States, Bhutto blamed Musharraf for failing to protect her in the volatile months leading up to Thursday's attack.

In a passage sure to inflame her supporters, Bhutto wrote in her e-mail that if she was harmed in Pakistan, "I would hold Musharraf responsible" and detailed security measures that she said were not granted to her after the initial attack.

Bhutto's supporters have also accused Musharraf of deliberately withholding security. "We repeatedly informed the government to provide her proper security and appropriate equipment including jammers (devices to foil remote-control detonation of bombs), but they paid no heed to our requests," Bhutto's security adviser, Rehman Malik, told The AP.

The government denied Bhutto's claims.

If a Civil War Breaks Out, Who Will Control Pakistan's Nukes?

Analysts warned that any suspicion that Musharraf had a role in Bhutto's killing or knew about the plot and failed to prevent it could pitch Pakistan to the edge of a civil war. "This assassination is the most serious setback for democracy in Pakistan," said Rasul Baksh Rais, a political scientist at Lahore's University of Management Sciences.

And if a civil war does break out, control of Pakistan's nuclear weapons would hang in the balance. A member of the "nuclear club" since 1998, neither Pakistan nor its arch-rival, India -- itself a nuclear-armed state since 1974 -- is a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1970.

That the international community is worried about Pakistan's nukes falling into the hands of extremists was underscored when Germany's foreign minister expressed his concerns in an interview published Sunday in the Hamburg weekly Bild am Sonntag.

Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier told the newspaper that there was "not yet any concrete risk" of nuclear weapons falling into the wrong hands, but said efforts should focus on preventing that from occurring. Steinmeier joined the voices of many Western leaders concerned about Pakistan's stability.

Germany and other Western nations see next week's parliamentary elections in Pakistan as "vital" to paving the way to stability in a country plagued by the rise of Islamic militancy, the German public broadcaster Deustche Welle reported Saturday.

The security of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal first came into question in 2004, when its chief nuclear scientist, Abdul Qadeer Khan, confessed to sharing nuclear secrets with Iran, Libya and North Korea. But some analysts say the military in Pakistan has its nuclear weapons under tight control against al-Qaida, Taliban and other militants.

U.S. Intelligence: Pakistan In Danger of Becoming Another 'Taliban State' by 2015

In early 2005, a joint security assessment by the CIA and the U.S. National Intelligence Council predicted Pakistan would become "a failed state, ripe with civil war, bloodshed, inter-provincial rivalries and a struggle for control of its nuclear weapons and complete Talibanization" by 2015.

"It's a very, very valid risk," said M.J. Gohel, the head of the Asia-Pacific Foundation, a London-based security and intelligence think-tank, when asked by the Reuters news service about the possibility that parts of Pakistan's nuclear technology could fall into militant hands.

"It's only a matter of time before al-Qaida or somebody sympathetic to them gets hold of nuclear weapons, and if al-Qaida or its sympathizers are to get hold of them, then Pakistan is at this point the weakest link in the chain," said Gohel.

"It is the most unstable country in the world that has nuclear weapons. Iran may want nuclear weapons, but it doesn't have them today. Pakistan does."

Bhutto's Son to Lead Her Party in Elections Rescheduled for February 18

President Musharraf formally announced in a nationally televised address Wednesday night that next Tuesday's elections have been postponed until February 18, over the objections of both main opposition parties -- which fear a delay will work against them.

Musharraf warned that army and paramilitary troops would deal forcefully with any renewed violence and appealed for national reconciliation leading to free and fair elections. "The army and the [paramilitary] rangers will be fully deployed to ensure law and order across the country and for holding elections peacefully," he said.

Supporters of Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party and the other main opposition party, led by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, had wanted the election to go ahead next Tuesday as planned and condemned the postponement, but pledged to carry on with the campaign.

The parties had earlier threatened continuous protests against the government over the delay, but conceded the postponement as a fait accompli.

Bhutto's PPP elected her 19-year-old son, Bilawal Zardari, to succeed her as party chairman on Sunday, but left the real power to her husband, Asif ali Zardari, who was elected co-chairman.

Is Nawaz Sharif Next on Killers' Hit List?

While Sharif was clearly unhappy with the election delay, he may have more than the ballot to worry about: In the wake of Bhutto's murder, his own life may be in danger -- the next target on assassins' "hit list." If Bhutto's killers are indeed linked to al-Qaida, as the Pakistani government claims they are, then it's the latest in a series of attacks in what recent audiotapes purportedly by bin Laden proclaim is a jihad to overthrow Musharraf's government.

Islamic militants have been engaging for months in a guerrilla insurgency in Pakistan's northwestern regions that border Afghanistan, particularly in the federally administered tribal area in the Northwest Frontier Province region of Waziristan.

It was in part because of the insurgency that Musharraf declared a state of emergency on November 3, which he lifted on December 6 -- although Musharraf's opponents insist that the former general, who resigned as army chief in late November, imposed emergency rule to stop the judiciary from vetoing his re-election as president by Parliament, currently dominated by Musharraf allies.

In the aftermath of Bhutto's assassination, it remains to be seen if Musharraf will reimpose emergency rule.

The U.S. government has pressured Musharraf, who seized power in a coup eight years ago, to push ahead with the election to promote stability in this nuclear armed nation, a key ally against Islamic extremism.

The Bush administration finds itself in a box after sticking so long with the policy of standing by Musharraf's side at all costs, and it has little choice but to stay with him now, otherwise the White House would run the risk of making Pakistan even less stable.

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Volume III, Number 4
Copyright 2007, Skeeter Sanders. All rights reserved.



Muslims Against Sharia said...

Muslims Against Sharia condemn the murderers responsible for the assassination of Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and her supporters.

Our prayers are with the victims of this atrocity. We send our condolences to their loved ones.

May the homicide bomber rote in hell for eternity. May his accomplices join him soon!