Just days before parliamentary polls in Pakistan, leading prime ministerial contender and anti-terrorism crusader Benazir Bhutto was shot dead during an election rally in the garrison city of Rawalpindi, near Islamabad. "She has been martyred," said party official Rehman Malik. The Associated Press, citing Malik, reported that Bhutto was shot in the neck and the chest before the gunman blew himself up. At least 20 bystanders were killed in the blast. Bhutto was rushed to a hospital But, at 6:16 p.m. Pakistan time, she was declared dead.
""How can somebody who can shoot her get so close to her with all the so-called security?" said a distraught Husain Haqqani, a former top aide to Bhutto, shortly after news of her death flashed around the world. Haqqani, who served as a spokesman and top aide to Bhutto for more than a decade, blamed Pakistani security, either through neglect or complicity, in her assassination. "This is the security establishment, which has always wanted her out," he said through tears.
For the past several months Pakistan has been plagued by a wave of violence that has seen hundreds of civilians killed in similar bombing attacks; and hundreds more military personnel, prompting President Pervez Musharraf to declare a state of emergency. On December 16th, Musharraf lifted the state of emergency, stating that the threat had been contained. The bombings, however, continued. Just hours before her assassination, Bhutto, 54, met with visiting Afghan President Hamid Karzai to discuss the threat of terrorism against both countries.
The U.S. has long supported a return to power by Bhutto, who was perceived to be a moderate willing to work with Washington on the war on terror. She was also seen as a democratic leader who would serve as a counter to the plummeting popularity of Musharraf, who took power in a 1999 military coup. It was thought that a power-sharing deal between the two, in which Musharraf stayed on as President while Bhutto lead as Prime Minister, would promote stability in this nuclear armed nation of 165 million. But from the day of her arrival in Pakistan after eight years in exile, Bhutto's return has been marred by violence.
On October 18th, a pair of bombs detonated in the midst a welcome-home rally in Karachi for the former two-time Prime Minister, killing some 145 in a deliberate attempt on her life. The organization responsible for the carnage has not yet been identified, but Bhutto said she suspected al-Qaeda and some unspecified members of Musharraf's government who did not want to see her return to power. Despite the clear threat to her life, Bhutto continued to campaign publicly with the kind of mass rallies that are the cornerstone of politicking in Pakistan. "I am not afraid," she told TIME last month. "I am ready to die for my country."
Haqqani, now a professor at Boston University, isn't sure what the latest bloodshed means for his country. "Will the Pakistani military realize that this is going to tear the fabric of the nation apart, and so really get serious about securing the country and about getting serious in dealing with the extremist jihadis?" he wondered. But he made clear he feels the best chance for such a policy has just evaporated. "She did show courage, and she was the only person who spoke out against terrorism," he said. "She was let down by those in Washington who think that sucking up to bad governments around the world is their best policy option."
Within hours of the assasination, protests and riots broke out in Pakistan's main cities. In Rawalpindi, vegetable vendor Naeem, 25, said Bhutto's murder would hurt Pakistan's poorest, who were among Bhutto's most loyal supporters. "People were hoping her government would help the lower classes and now she is gone," he said. Syeda Asmat Begum, 73, who lives in Pakistan's capital Islamabad, told TIME that "everywhere sadness prevails. We are in fear that even our leaders are not safe from the bombardment of suicide bombers and bullets."
That was a view felt around the country. In Lahore, where shops and restaurants closed and the streets emptied of people except for the center of town where Bhutto supporters gathered to vent their anger, Majid Iqbal, 26, an engineering student was trying to hitch a ride home because bus services had stopped. "People are very worried," says Iqbal, who called his family in his home village outside the city as soon as he heard the news. "If a leader of a great party is not secure, then how can the Pakistani people be secure? At this time Pakistan's future is fragile."
Speaking on television outside the hospital where Bhutto died, the opposition leader Nawaz Sharif said, "I myself feel threatened... Are things in control now? Had things been in control, would this have happened?" Bhutto's rival said, "We both were struggling for the same cause, and we had signed the charter of democracy." On camera, he addressed Bhutto's supporters, "I assure you that I will fight your war from now." He said, "It is tragic not only for [her party] but also for my party."
Pakistan can ill afford to sacrifice the few moderate leaders it has left. Bhutto's death will plunge the upcoming elections into uncertainty and the country further into instability. At the news of her assassination, many of her loyalists rioted in the streets of Pakistan. There will be many tense days ahead for the Musharraf government as it deals with this political crisis. And that's good news for terrorism. With reporting by Khuda Yar Khan/Islamabad, Simon Robinson/Lahore and Mark Thompson/Washington