RAWALPINDI, Pakistan — Moments after a euphoric crowd stretched its arms toward Benazir Bhutto, moments after the charismatic former prime minister made herself vulnerable by saluting her followers through a car’s sunroof, the street was awash with blood. And in that chaotic instant, a dangerous world became even more dangerous.
Efforts to restore democracy in Pakistan suffered a crushing blow with Thursday’s assassination of the 54-year-old Bhutto after a rally. A country that has nuclear weapons was even more destabilized, and America’s hopes to maintain Pakistan as a bulwark against terrorism were shaken.
On whose behalf did the suicidal assassin kill Bhutto, 20 others and himself? No one knew for certain. But clearly, this was a victory for extremists.
President Pervez Musharraf blamed Islamic terrorists. “Today, after this tragic incident, I want to express my firm resolve … we will not rest until we eliminate these terrorists and root them out,” he told a national television audience.
Musharraf debated whether to postpone Jan. 8 elections — a bitter irony, because Bhutto had returned from exile to run in that election against Musharraf, leader of a military government since a 1999 coup. Another opposition politician, Nawaz Sharif, announced he would boycott any vote in the wake of Bhutto’s murder.
In the United States, a tense-looking President Bush condemned the attack “by murderous extremists who are trying to undermine Pakistan’s democracy.” Bush spoke briefly by phone with Musharraf; the Bush administration had banked on a plan to stabilize Pakistan with a rapprochement between Bhutto and Musharraf.
U.S. intelligence officials said they were trying to determine the validity of purported claims of responsibility by al-Qaida, stressing they still couldn’t say who was responsible.
FBI spokesman Richard Kolko said “the validity of those claims are undetermined.”
The statement came after a law enforcement official told the AP that a national FBI and Homeland Security bulletin to law enforcement agencies cited Islamist Web sites as saying al-Qaida had claimed responsibility. The official asked to remain anonymous because he was not authorized to speak publicly about it.
Director of National Intelligence spokesman Ross Feinstein said his agency was “in no position right now to confirm who may have been responsible.”
Across Pakistan, the shock of Thursday’s bloodshed faded into violence, as Bhutto’s enraged supporters burned vehicles and attacked shops. At least nine people died in the mayhem that followed. As news of her death spread, supporters gathered at the hospital where she had been taken, smashed glass doors, stoned cars.
Rightly or wrongly, they knew whom to blame: They chanted, “Killer, Killer, Musharraf.”