Breaking News: Benazir Bhutto Assassinated in Suicide Attack

Former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto died at 6:16PM PST (8:16AM New York) today after suffering fatal wounds from an assassination attempt while leaving Liaquat Park in Rawalpindi.

Bhutto, after completing her address at the party rally and entering a bomb and bulletproof vehicle, reportedly opened the vehicle’s sunroof and shook hands with her supporters through it, exposing the top half of her body. An assassin, perhaps briefly preceded by a suicide blast nearby, fired three to five shots at her; one struck Ms. Bhutto in the head and the other in her neck. The assassin then blew himself up.

Rehman Malik, Bhutto’s chief security adviser and Naheed Khan, a close Bhutto friend are critically injured. Over thirty others have been killed.

Dawn reports in today’s paper (before the blast) that Islamabad (adjacent to Rawalpindi) was under high alert and heightened security due to threats from Baitullah Mehsud. Nusrat Javed of Aaj Television states that the suicide attacker went through three rings of security to reach Ms. Bhutto.

Pakistan’s first Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan was assassinated in Rawalpindi — at the same park– on October 16, 1951. Bhutto’s father was also hung in Rawalpindi in 1979.

Ms. Bhutto joins the list of assassinated family members: her brother Shahnawaz died from poisoning in France in 1985 and her other brother Murtaza was shot to death by police at close range in 1996.

UPDATE – 09:56AM – GEO reports of gunfire and blasts near Bilawal House, the Bhutto home in Karachi.

UPDATE – 10:05AM – An immensely distraught Asif Ali Zardari, husband of the late Benazir Bhutto, just spoke briefly on GEO Television. On his way from Dubai to Karachi, he said, “We will see what has happened. We don’t believe all of what’s been said. We will see then we will believe it.”

UPDATE – 10:38AM – Pervez Musharraf has appealed to the people of Pakistan to cooperate with the security forces to maintain calm as violence grows across the country. The extent of the turmoil is unclear at this point, but GEO is reporting significant violence in Karachi.

UPDATE – 10:45AM – GEO reports that there will be a three days of mourning in Bhutto’s home province of Sindh. Bhutto’s body will be transported from Rawalpindi to Karachi, but it could be temporarily placed at Zardari House in Islamabad.

UPDATE – 10:58AM – Former Director General of Inter-Services Intelligence Hamid Gul states on GEO that the assassination of Benazir Bhutto demonstrates the “failure” of Pervez Musharraf’s government and calls for a “consensus government.”

UPDATE – 11:05AM – GEO has shown the image of the gun believed to have been used to fire upon Bhutto.

UPDATE – 11:21AM – Pervez Musharraf just completed a national address on Pakistan television. He has announced a three day national mourning period. Musharraf attributed the attacks to the terrorists the country is waging a war against and vowed to continue the fight till they are vanquished.

George W. Bush earlier made an address from Crawford, Texas, urging Pakistanis to “honor Benazir Bhutto’s memory by continuing with the democratic process for which she so bravely gave her life.”

UPDATE – 12:50PM – Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) has announced that they will boycott the elections.

UPDATE – 1:02PM – Nawaz Sharif is giving a speech now explaining his boycott of the elections, stating that neither free and fair elections nor security can be provided with Musharraf as president.

UPDATE – 1:05PM – The body of Benazir Bhutto is at Chaklala Air Base in Islamabad. It will be transported to Bhutto’s hometown of Larkana, where she will be buried at the family mausoleum in Garhi Khuda Baksh.

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Things Fall Apart

Benazir Bhutto recently blamed Pakistan’s intelligence services for the fractures emerging in her party’s elite. The former prime minister is highly concerned with cohesiveness of the PPP, making party members take loyalty oaths on the Qur’an. Though the intelligence services have previously and will continue to cause defections from her party, Bhutto alone bears responsibility for the PPP’s current internal challenges.

In late November, Masood Sharif Khattak–head of the intelligence bureau under Bhutto and PPP member for over 20 years–resigned from the party, possibly due to objections over Bhutto’s hardline stance against the insurgents in northwest Pakistan (he is a Pathan) and her dealings with Pervez Musharraf.

Earlier this month, Naseerullah Babar–Bhutto’s long-time national security adviser–rejected offers for a PPP ticket in the upcoming elections, citing his opposition to her talks with Pervez Musharraf.

Last week, Aitzaz Ahsan withdrew his nomination papers after Bhutto rejected his proposal that election candidates take an oath that they will earnestly work for the restoration of the pre-November 3rd judiciary when the new parliament convenes. She said that Ahsan’s proposal– a reasonable compromise that permitted both electoral participation and commitment to the pro-judiciary cause–was his “personal point of view and the PPP has nothing to do with it.” After Ahsan’s withdrawal, Bhutto stated that he must decide whether he’s with the PPP or the chief justice. On Friday, she also stated that the pre-November 3rd judiciary was not independent. As I’ve written earlier, Bhutto never had much fondness for Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry and his colleagues. In Dubai, prior to her return to Pakistan, Bhutto accused the court of a historic bias in favor of Punjabis. [Video]

This week, Naheed Khan–one of Bhutto’s closest friends and political allies–also withdrew her nomination papers, albeit for more personal reasons. Khan opposes Bhutto’s proximity to Husain Haqqani, the architect of her U.S. lobbying campaign, and offering of an election ticket to his current wife. Haqqani was previously married to Khan’s sister. While Haqqani is currently a professor at Boston University and a fellow at the neo-conservative Hudson Institute, there are reports Bhutto could offer him a Senate seat when one becomes available. Soap opera drama aside, Nahid Khan’s withdrawal is significant as she had previously been the medium by which people communicate to Bhutto. However, it should be noted that she remains as Bhutto’s political secretary.

What does this all mean? The PPP isn’t necessarily in a state of crisis, but it could be if Bhutto & Company fail to shape up. Rather than blaming the intelligence services for causing splits in her party, these particular developments are the product of Bhutto’s authoritarian hold over the PPP.

Bhutto needs to improve her capacity to channel differences of opinion and multiple dominant personalities within the party into a reasonable mean. Over the course of more than a decade, Bhutto has failed to demonstrate much of an ability to do so; recall how she pushed out her mother and late brother out of the party. The challenges the PPP faces today is the result of her overpersonalization of the party’s decision-making structure and an overaggressive lobbying campaign in the U.S.

Gone is the era in which one could make statements in Washington and not have them reach Karachi, Lahore, and Islamabad. Bhutto’s statements in Washington regarding giving the IAEA access to A.Q. Khan, for example, made their way to Pakistan instantaneously. Farhatullah Babar, a senior PPP leader and Bhutto loyalist, was compelled to deny that Bhutto had made the comments attributed to her, despite the video recording. The discord between her discourse in the West and in Pakistan has been telling.

Rather than asking Aitzaz Ahsan whether he’s loyal to the PPP or Chief Justice Chaudhry, she should ask herself what is the People’s Party to begin with? Is she the chairperson of the People’s Party or, effectively, the Bhutto’s Party? And has she, in her quest for another premiership, pulled the party too far from its populist, anti-military rule roots?

Instead of pointing fingers elsewhere, now is the time for introspection for Bhutto, for by the time her son Bilawal finishes his studies at Oxford and learns a modicum of Urdu, Pakistan’s first mass political party might be in tatters.

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Arif Rafiq, a Washington, DC-based consultant on Middle East and South Asian political and security issues. [About]

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