What now for Pakistan?

Benazir Bhutto 1953-2007: She represented a faint hope but now even that has gone
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Benazir Bhutto, twice prime minister of Pakistan and the leading contender to win a third term in the coming election, has been assassinated in Rawalpindi, struck by bullets, then by shrapnel from a suicide bomb that killed at least 16 others. With her died the fragile hope that Pakistan might drag itself from the grip of the military and the jihadists and find its feet once again as a functioning democracy.

She had just finished speaking at a political rally yesterday and was waving to supporters from her car when she was targeted, first by gunshots then by a suicide bomb. Ms Bhutto was taken to hospital but died soon afterwards. "She has been martyred," Rehman Malik, a party official, announced tersely outside the Rawalpindi hospital as party supporters roared their grief, beat their breasts, smashed windows and stoned cars.

Pakistan is not new to political assassinations, a red vein of violence runs through its brief history. Yet, there was a cruel symmetry about Ms Bhutto's death coming in the same garrison town where her father was executed nearly three decades ago.

In 1979, the military dictator was General Zia ul-Haq who had Benazir's father former prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto hanged in Rawalpindi District Jail.

She was only 26 at the time and was smuggled news of his death via their lawyer. She would go on to inherit his party, his popular standing and his fate.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had faults and made mistakes but, like his daughter, he had enjoyed huge popular support; as prime minister he made peace with India, improved ties with China and gave Pakistan some standing and legitimacy in the world. When, on General Zia's orders, he was sentenced to death, pleas for clemency poured in from world leaders. All to no effect.

General Zia was pitiless because Pakistani politics has never left much space for tolerance and forgiveness. The same logic has now condemned Zulfikar's daughter to a terrible death.

The reverberations from her murder were felt immediately and worldwide. Condemnations and tributes of world leaders poured in and Pakistan itself braced for a violent backlash from her supporters.

As fires burned in cities across Pakistan last night, fears mounted that this huge country of 167 million, the only Muslim nation with the nuclear bomb, might begin to rip apart at the seams.

As prime minister twice before, Ms Bhutto had performed without distinction and had been hounded out of the country by her successor Nawaz Sharif with a sheaf of court cases. But no one could question her courage or her democratic credentials. Like her father, she held Pakistan's frail hopes in her hands. Like him she has been killed.

"It is not a sad day," said Nawaz Sharif, her former nemesis and main rival for power in the forthcoming election, "it is the darkest, gloomiest day in the history of this country." He blamed the government for "a serious lapse in security".

"It is the act of those who want Pakistan to disintegrate," said Farzana Raja, a senior official in her party, the Pakistan People's Party, "because she was a symbol of unity. They have finished the Bhutto family. They are the enemies of Pakistan."

President Musharraf also condemned the killing and declared three days of mourning.

Aged 54, educated at Oxford, Ms Bhutto returned to Pakistan from voluntary exile in the West with a good prospect of winning a third term in power in the election scheduled for 8 January. But, from her arrival, assassins dogged her steps. In Peshawar this week, hundreds came to hear her when thousands had been expected, fear of more bombings keeping the crowds away. Yesterday, in the garrison city that is President Musharraf's headquarters and should be the safest city in the country, the killers caught up with her.

Hope has never been a commodity in great supply in Pakistan, an artificial nation created by wrenching the majority Muslim states of British India out of India and smashing them together in a single country. Every step of its way has been punctuated by bloody death and disorder.

Benazir was the fourth Pakistani leader in 60 years to die violently. Liaqat Ali Khan, prime minister from 1948, was also killed in Rawalpindi, shot down while addressing a political meeting there in 1951, three years after coming to power. The crowd overpowered his assassin and lynched him.

Zia ul-Haq, Bhutto's executioner and Pakistan's military ruler in the 1980s, oversaw the country's Islamisation: he was the front line in the proxy war in Afghanistan, which saw billions of American dollars funnelled by Inter-Services Intelligence, Pakistan's military intelligence agency (itself staffed increasingly by the devout) to Afghan and Arab mujahedin fighting Soviet troops in Afghanistan. The Taliban and al-Qa'ida were only the most obvious fruits of his rule.

But Zia also died violently, killed in a plane crash in 1988, the probable victim although blame has never been ascertained of rival factions in the army.

Civilian rule was restored and Ms Bhutto was elected prime minister later the same year, aged 35. As the first democratically elected woman leader of a Muslim nation at a moment when the whole world was on the cusp of seismic political change, her victory seemed charged with significance.

But Pakistan remained fatally divided and, despite her brains and eloquence Ms Bhutto had none of her father's gift for ramming through reforms.

The hope she held out may have been a fragile one. But now even that has gone.

leading article, page 42

Obituary, page 46

'I am 70, but today I feel like an orphan'

Another exhausting election rally behind her, Benazir Bhutto waved to the crowd one last time, her head and torso sticking up through the open sun roof of her white jeep. Shots rang out. She slumped back in the vehicle and fell to one side just as there was a huge explosion to her left. Blood poured from her head. She never regained consciousness.

Ms Bhutto was assassinated after making a campaign appearance in Rawalpindi, the garrison city that houses the headquarters of the Pakistan army, an institution that has always seemed opposed to her. Just a couple of miles across town, her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Pakistan's first democratically elected prime minister, was executed in 1979 by a previous military regime.

Eyewitnesses to yesterday's massacre said that the assassin was jumped by Ms Bhutto's squad of bodyguards and promptly detonated his explosives, ripping those around him to shreds. All ambulance crews could do was gather pieces of human flesh from the blood-red street.

Farhatullah Babar, Ms Bhutto's spokesman, was travelling one car in front when the attack took place and recalled the final moments of the woman seen by the West as Pakistan's democratic darling.

"We were leaving the rally, and Ms Bhutto was in the car behind me with her security personnel and her political secretary," Mr Babar said. "Just 50 metres away from the gate, she opened the sun roof and stood up to wave to the crowds outside. Then we heard shots being fired and a blast."

Witnesses said between three and five shots were fired. At least one hit Ms Bhutto in the neck. The leader of the Pakistan People's Party and the other casualties were taken to Rawalpindi hospital, where distraught supporters massed. Pushing their way in, they wept and shouted with no doubt in their minds about who was to blame. "Musharraf is a dog," they chanted. "Musharraf murderer," they yelled. Others could only wail. "Baji Bibi", sobbed one woman. "Sister Bhutto".

Inside the operating room, the former prime minister's body lay on a stretcher, covered with a white sheet, a white bandage wrapped around the neck.

Outon the streets of Rawalpindi, victims of the bombing, their clothes blown off, lay on the road. Two were face down. All that remained of one was a severed hand. The more fortunate, with minor shrapnel wounds, wandered dazed near the Liaquat Bagh Park.

At the hospital, a frail old man reflected on the day's tragic events, tears rolling down his cheeks. "I am 70," Saqib Hussain said, "but today I feel like an orphan."

Ms Bhutto's body was being taken last night, by special flight, to the south of the country, to her home town of Larkana, where her father's body lies in a giant mausoleum.

Saeed Shah