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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2730

Bhutto's Killing May Threaten Pakistan's Stability

By Thalif Deen - Inter Press Service

United Nations, 29 December, (IPS): The assassination of Pakistan's opposition leader and former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto threatens to de-stabilise a country which the United States describes as a trusted ally and a frontline fighter in the global war on terrorism.

The attack on Bhutto in Rawalpindi Thursday was an attempt to thwart her election as prime minister of a civilian government. The polls were scheduled to take place next month.

"The military didn't really want civilian politicians in power," says Barnett Rubin, director of studies and senior fellow at the Centre on International Cooperation at New York University.

"They wanted to use them to legitimate indirect rule, and they were going to do it by rigging the election," he added.

Rubin said Washington's strategy is in "tatters" and that it will be scrambling to say the election either needs to be held as planned or postponed rather than cancelled. But Musharraf, he pointed out, is in a position to pre-empt that, "presumably by declaring a state of emergency."

Zia Mian at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University described the murder of Bhutto and dozens of her supporters as "a tragic event".

He said it casts "a grim shadow" over the national elections scheduled for Jan. 8, which may be postponed.

"It also raises questions about the future of President [Pervez] Musharraf, who is backed by Washington but deeply unpopular at home, and had hoped to use the elections to create legitimacy and support," Mian told IPS.

Mian pointed out that Bhutto's death also throws into question the viability of her Pakistan People's Party (PPP) -- which had been founded by her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto -- and "which she treated as a personal inheritance and vehicle for her ambition."

In an interview with IPS in October, Bhutto took a tough stand against military rule. "Under a democratic government of the PPP, the army will have to be in barracks and do its duty to defend the country's borders as its constitutional duty," she said.

"We are not looking at the army sharing power with the civil and political authority. The army must remain subservient to the civil authority," she insisted.

Anticipating political chaos in Pakistan, the 15-member U.N. Security Council met Thursday to urge all Pakistanis "to exercise restraint and maintain stability in the country."

In a presidential statement, the Council also "condemned in the strongest terms the terrorist suicide attack by extremists."

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said that Bhutto's assassination "represents an assault on stability in Pakistan and its democratic processes."

"I strongly condemn this heinous crime and call for the perpetrators to be brought to justice as soon as possible," Ban added.

Daniel Markey, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), a U.S.-based think-tank, says that although he thought it highly unlikely that Musharraf was behind the killing, many people in Pakistan are holding him accountable.

Markey -- whose work concentrates on India, Pakistan and South Asia -- described the assassination as a "significant blow" to the U.S., which has provided over 10 billion dollars in aid since 2002, primarily to boost Pakistan's war on terrorism.

He said the worst-case scenario, which was unlikely to happen, was that if the army proved "incapable of controlling [the street violence], it may break down."

Markey said there was a "general consensus" among the top leadership of the U.S. administration that "while Musharraf is not perfect, he is still very much of a helpful partner."

"This latest tragedy is likely to reinforce [that view]," Markey added, stressing that the administration is, "likely to stick with him until the bitter end".

In a letter to Musharraf last month, Bhutto accused Pakistan's intelligence services of "involvement" in an attempt on her life last October.

"If something happens to me," she said, "I will hold them responsible rather than militant groups like the Taliban, al Qaeda or the Pakistani Taliban."

Musharraf, a former army general who shed his military uniform only last month, was accused of running a dictatorship by silencing the opposition, muzzling the press and hijacking the judiciary.

In a television interview last month, U.S. President George W. Bush virtually went into raptures over the Pakistani President when he said that Musharraf has not crossed any legitimate boundaries to be deemed a political outcast.

"As a matter of fact, I don't think he will cross any lines. We didn't necessarily agree with his decision to impose emergency rule, and hopefully he'll get rid of the rule," he added.

Bush's support for Musharraf’s increasingly authoritarian regime also drew stinging criticism from several U.S. Congressmen.

Perhaps the sharpest reaction came from presidential aspirant Senator Joe Biden -- chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee -- whose response was laced with political sarcasm.

"What exactly would it take for the president [Bush] to conclude Musharraf has crossed the line? Suspend the constitution? Impose emergency law? Beat and jail his political opponents and human rights activists?" Biden asked.

"He's already done all that. If the president sees Musharraf as a democrat, he must be wearing the same glasses he had on when he looked in [Russian President] Vladimir Putin's soul, [and said he was "a man deeply committed to his country and the best interests of his country."]

Musharraf is holding the U.S. for ransom primarily for two reasons, according to political analysts. The Pakistani President has been considered by the Bush administration as a "loyal ally" in the U.S.-led global war against terrorism -- notwithstanding his ineffectiveness in curbing terrorism in his own backyard.

Secondly, Musharraf has guaranteed the safety of his arsenal of nuclear weapons as long as he is in power. But if Musharraf is ousted, the nukes may be up for grabs.

In such an event, the U.S. has to have contingency plans to ensure the "security" of Pakistan's nuclear weapons.

- Inter Press Service (IPS) News Agency -

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