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A killing that reverberates far beyond Pakistan

There was an appalling sense of inevitability about the death of Benazir Bhutto at an election rally in Rawalpindi. The risk she had taken in returning to Pakistan was brutally apparent from the moment her plane touched down. The failed attempt on her life during the interminable procession that day showed how inadequate her protection would be if she continued her campaign. That she did so nonetheless showed admirable, if perhaps foolhardy, courage. An accursed symmetry had it that she died yesterday in the same garrison city where her deposed father was executed. Her quest to avenge his death and return elected government to Pakistan came to naught.

Ms Bhutto had powerful enemies, and there were damaging accusations against her: of corruption, nepotism and entitlement. But there could be no doubting either her sense of personal destiny or the seriousness with which she plied her politics. While lineage played its part, she was one of the first women to be elected prime minister of an Islamic country. The gamble she took in accepting the deal President Musharraf offered her an end to exile, an election campaign and, if her People's Party won, the prime ministership was not an unreasonable one for her to make. When she, rightly, broke with Mr Musharraf over his failure to lift martial law, she took the more difficult course. Rather than returning to exile, she stayed to fight.

In a way, her gamble was rewarded. Mr Musharraf lifted the state of emergency. Before his re-inauguration as President, he made the formal move into civilian life. When she died, an election campaign not entirely unworthy of the name was in progress. Whether it would have been strictly constitutional for Ms Bhutto to accept a third term as Prime Minister was a question that lurked only a little uneasily in the wings. At the time, it was just possible to believe that Mr Musharraf and Ms Bhutto might be able to bury their differences for the sake of a stable Pakistan and a rapid transition to democracy.

Those hopes now appear wildly unrealistic. But if, with the false wisdom of hindsight, yesterday's assassination seemed inevitable, the consequences can only be unpredictable and highly dangerous. It seems unlikely that any of the gains of recent months can be maintained. Disturbances broke out in cities across Pakistan within minutes of the announcement of Ms Bhutto's death. The language of martyrdom in which her assassination was condemned bespoke conflict and bloodshed to come.

These will be perilous days for Pakistan. The return to civilian rule and the parliamentary elections, now less than two weeks away, are both surely threatened. Mr Musharraf's position is as shaky as it has been since he seized power. His call for calm "so that the nefarious designs of terrorists can be defeated" smacked of desperation, the national security card ever the last resort of the weak leader. And even if, as is probable, he had no part whatever in her death, there will be many among her supporters who will believe he did.

As the urgent words of tribute and warning showed yesterday, however, Ms Bhutto's assassination will reverberate far beyond her native land. The United States, and to a lesser extent Britain, had encouraged Ms Bhutto to return in the expectation that she would be Pakistan's next Prime Minister. They envisaged her as a moderating and pro-Western force in a country where Islamic extremism is never far from the surface. They hoped an electoral mandate would bring stability. At a time when the Taliban are advancing in Afghanistan, violence still plagues Iraq, and Iran's intentions are uncertain, new volatility in the region can be in no one's interests. Benazir Bhutto might not have been able, as she aspired, to save Pakistan for democracy, but now she will not have the chance.