It was a death foretold when a suicide bomber killed former Pakistan Prime Minister and opposition leader Benazir Bhutto after an election rally of her Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) in the garrison city of Rawalpindi on December 27. That perhaps was why grief so rapidly turned into fury. PPP supporters took to the streets in violent protest in Karachi, Lahore, Rawalpindi and a dozen other cities. Thirty-one were killed in gun battles, including several police. More may fall after Bhutto’s tumultuous funeral in her ancestral home of Larkana on Friday. With two weeks to go before elections, Pakistan is a country on a precipice.
The significance of Bhutto’s murder was felt at once. She had just addressed the rally and was standing atop her steel-reinforced land cruiser when a motorcyclist drove up, opened fire and blew himself up. She was rushed to hospital where she died of wounds to the chest, neck and head. Twenty others perished, mostly PPP cadre.
Benazir is the fourth of her family to meet a violent, political demise. The Islamist and pro-American dictatorship of Zia-ul-Haq ousted and then hanged her father, Prime Minister Zulfikhar Ali Bhutto, in 1979. Her brothers, Shahnawaz and Muntazer, were killed in 1985 and 1996, probably by Pakistan’s intelligence agencies. And she herself narrowly escaped death when a suicide bomber killed 137 of her supporters on return to Karachi on October 18 after eight years of self-imposed exile.
She was–clearly–a target. Yet the overwhelming sentiment of the tens of thousands who converged on Larkana was not just grief but outrage: how could an assassin get so close to their leader at a place where there were hundreds of police, dozens of bodyguards and perhaps 5,000 party workers?
Bhutto said there were four groups that had wanted her dead. The Afghan and Pakistan Taliban, which saw her as a surrogate for American foreign policy, and Al Qaeda, which also loathed her as a woman and a Shia (and, (and, says the Pakistan government, was behind the killing.)
But Bhutto’s deepest suspicions rested on those she called the “remnants of Zia”: former military and intelligence officers who came to prominence during the ul-Haq dictatorship but who still enjoyed tangled ties of kinship with President Pervez Musharraf’s military regime and various jihadi outfits. After the carnage in Karachi she demanded an international enquiry to expose the “rogues.” Musharraf refused. If he wants to come out clean from Rawalpindi, he shouldn’t refuse again.
It’s clear whom the PPP rank-and-file holds responsible. The principal targets of their rage were the emblems and offices of Musharraf ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Q (PML-Q) faction. The charge was it–together with the intelligence agencies and Islamic militants–had most to gain by the removal of Pakistan’s most popular opposition leader. And the fact that the killing happened in Rawalpindi–not only a garrison town but also a PML-Q stronghold–added buckets of grist to the conspiracy theorists.