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Sunday, January 6, 2008

Pakistan: honour, sacrifice, violence
THE honour of Pakistan is our honour and for this honour we are all ready to sacrifice our lives." This is how Benazir Bhutto concluded her speech before thousands of supporters on December 27, minutes before something - either sniper bullets or flying metal shards - broke through her skull, pummeling her back into the vehicle in which she was travelling.
Ever since returning to Pakistan from her Dubai and London exile, death had stalked Bhutto. Almost immediately upon her return, on October 18, to Karachi, the sprawling but violence-ridden harbour city on the Arabian Sea, her would-be assassins had struck with a suicide-bomb attack.
At least 140 people fell victim in that blast. Bhutto, however, remained unhurt, her luck miraculously holding out.
On Thursday, however, that luck ran out, when the 54-year-old former prime minister succumbed to yet another assassin's attack. Bhutto's seemingly charmed life had finally come to an end. lost in the name of the politics she had passionately believed in for so long.
Shortly before her return to Pakistan - as reported in the Sunday Herald - Baitullah Mehsud, an al-Qaeda-Taliban warlord based in the embattled South Waziristan region bordering Afghanistan, had boasted to have trained "hundreds of suicide bombers" and that he was determined to kill Benazir Bhutto because she was an "American agent".
Mehsud later denied involvement in the assassination attempt on October 18, and yesterday again denied any role in Bhutto's killing. However a spokesman for Mehsud, Maulana Mohammed Umer, denied the accusations that the militant was involved in the attack as "government propaganda".
"We strongly deny it. Baitullah Mehsud is not involved in the killing of Benazir Bhutto," he said in a telephone call from South Waziristan.
"The fact is that we are only against America, and we don't consider political leaders of Pakistan our enemy," he said, adding he was speaking on instructions from Mehsud.
However, many security analysts point to the fact though that militants have indeed targeted Pakistan officials in the past, including President Pervez Musharraf, whose government yesterday placed responsibility for Bhutto's killing squarely on Mehsud's militants.
"We have the evidence that he is involved," said interior ministry spokesman Javed Iqbal Cheema, as the country reeled from violence and rioting in the aftermath of the assassination.
According to Cheema, Pakistan's secret service, ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence directorate), intercepted a telephone conversation suggesting Mehsud congratulated his associates for "successfully carrying out the task".
"It was a tremendous effort. They were really brave boys who killed her," Mehsud is alleged to have said, according to the transcript.
Few would argue that the attack on Bhutto bore the hallmarks of Pakistan's al-Qaeda-linked Islamic militants.
Cheema, however, denied that sniper bullets killed Bhutto, insisting that no bullet, no pellet and no shrapnel had been found in her body, and that a sun-roof lever caused her skull to break in a manner that killed her.
Such an explanation, while perhaps aimed at dampening conspiracy theories around Bhutto's death and claims of government connivance, certainly contradicted Cheema's own earlier statement, faxed to newspapers, which said that "flying shrapnel had hit her in the temporal area".
The fax claim had also quoted a medical report as the proof. But mystery surrounds these statements, not least as some of the doctors who attended to an almost dead Bhutto at the Rawalpindi General Hospital suggested that only a sniper shot from a higher position could have caused the kind of lethal injury that caused her almost instant death.
Bhutto's party meanwhile has dismissed the government account, describing as "ludicrous" the theory that she died after hitting her head.
"She received bullets, no question about that," said Farooq Naik, a lawyer and Bhutto party spokesman, who demanded a high-level judicial inquiry to ascertain the real cause of death.
Several witnesses described a sniper firing from a nearby building, raising questions about how well the government had protected her in a usually well-guarded garrison town and fueling speculation that government sympathisers had played a part.
"The story that al-Qaeda or Baitullah Mehsud did it appears to us to be a planted story, an incorrect story, because they want to divert the attention," said Farhatullah Babar, a spokesman for Bhutto's party.
Another mystery revolves around the issue of autopsy. "The authorities asked Amin Faheem, the party president, for permission to carry out an autopsy on Bhutto's body but he referred the matter to Bhutto's husband, Asif Zardari," the state-run PTV reported Friday night.
"Zardari, however, advised against the postmortem and requested the body be flown to the home town, Gahri Khuda Baksh, for burial," said the PTV report.
Yesterday, despite the deepening controversy over how Bhutto died, the Pakistan government said it did not need foreign assistance to investigate the assassination.
For years across Pakistan Benazir Bhutto has had her supporters and opponents. Critics liked to call her "Darling of the West" for her liberal views, Western demeanour and the swipes she took at right-wing politicians. Others adored her as the "Daughter of the East" and BB, an acronym not only for her name but a title used to respectfully address women.
But all agreed that she was a politician par excellence, an institution in her own right, and an icon of Pakistani identity across the world.
As in life, so in death controversy surrounded her. But even the bitterest of her rivals has been moved to praise her bravery.
"My brothers and sisters of the Peoples Party, it is not your loss. I have also lost my sister. We are all one in grief and sorrow," cried Nawas Sharif, the former prime minister and one of Bhutto's toughest political foes.
Shortly after hearing of Bhutto's death at Thursday's rally, Sharif had rushed to the hospital in Rawalpindi, south of Islamabad, to offer condolences.
Bhutto was never one to compromise on the liberal, progressive and modern outlook of her own personality and the character of her party. Clinging to a traditional dress code and speaking eloquently on the political issues of regional and global importance to various international media organisations, for many she represented what a modern Muslim woman should be.
But in renewed violence yesterday, three Bhutto supporters were shot dead bringing the death toll since her assassination to 42.
A 27-year-old man wearing a tunic made from a Pakistan People's Party (PPP) flag had just shouted "Bhutto is great" when he was gunned down while returning from the mausoleum where Bhutto was buried on Friday.
"Two gunmen were waiting in a vehicle, their faces covered, and they opened fire," said Shaukat Ali Shah, deputy inspector general of police in the city of Hyderabad in Sindh.
Separately, up to 400 PPP activists carrying banners, portraits of Bhutto and wielding bricks tried to burst into an oilfield facility near Hyderabad before dawn, when security forces acted on orders to shoot violent protesters on sight. "The mob was warned," Shah said. "Two people were killed."
Almost all of the deaths since Bhutto's killing have occurred in the southern province of Sindh, the PPP's power base, where the Election Commission said several of its offices were set on fire and electoral rolls and ballot boxes destroyed.
Bhutto's killing has thrown into doubt whether Pakistan can hold an election on January 8 that was meant to complete a transition to civilian rule in the nuclear-armed US ally.
So far the government has not announced any decision to call off or postpone the vote, but the Election Commission says it is planning an emergency meeting tomorrow.
The PPP has called its own meeting for today to decide whether to participate in the vote.
US President George W Bush has urged Pakistanis to honour Bhutto's memory by going ahead with the election.
But across the country people have remained on edge after protesters torched shops, lorries, welfare centres and ambulances overnight Friday and yesterday.
Thousands of Bhutto supporters ran riot in the garrison city of Rawalpindi near the capital after prayers for the slain leader, smashing property and clashing with police who fired tear gas to try and subdue the crowd.
In downtown neighbourhoods of Karachi, the volatile capital of Sindh and a city of 14 million people, streets were virtually deserted as armed police and paramilitary forces patrolled streets.
"There's a lot of rioting going on in my neighbourhood, Clifton. Everything has been burned up. Shops have been looted," said Ali Khan, a 36-year-old country manager for Audi Pakistan, as he stood outside his Audi garage in Karachi's business district.
Fuel stations, general stores, restaurants and even most drug stores remained shuttered to avoid the wrath of protesters. Fuel and food supplies remained suspended in most parts of the urban centres, bringing life almost to a stop. In many places roads were littered with broken glass and burnt-out cars.
Buildings and ambulances run by the Edhi Foundation, a charity that runs welfare centres, were vandalised.
Telephone and internet links between Islamabad and Karachi were also disrupted due to the violence. The main fibre-optic link between the two cities was cut in Sindh province and an angry mob yesterday chased away engineers sent to fix it.
President Musharraf told his security chiefs yesterday to end the riots, saying those looting and plundering "must be dealt with firmly and all measures be taken to ensure the safety and security of the people".
As Pakistan continues to be wracked with unrest, regional and global leaders including President Bush and Gordon Brown insisted that a free and fair election, independent of meddling from Pakistan's military or intelligence services, was the only way to ensure the country stepped back from meltdown and back to the path of a positive political process.
Bhutto's assassination had "left a huge political vacuum at the heart of this nuclear-armed state, which appears to be slipping into an abyss of violence and Islamic extremism", Irfan Siddiqi, a noted Pakistan newspaper columnist, told the Sunday Herald in Islamabad. Many ordinary Pakistanis now feel frustrated and tired of what they see as political manipulation and are aching for the freedom of a political process in which the army has no role to play. Many contest that the stark choice the country faces lies between a bright democratic future or the dark damning ditch of Islamic extremism.
Speaking on a dawn TV show, one analyst advised that the Pakistan army "should now realise how terribly hated an institution it has become, and must go back to barracks and do stuff that they are trained for".
The question now is whether those among the military are paying any attention to such concerns and are willing to concede anything of their power base and influence.
"This nation needs big healing touches, and democracy and a sense of participation are the only balms to heal the bruises caused by Bhutto's murder, commented Pakistan's well known lawyer and newspaper columnist Anees Jeelani.
"Militants and jihadis may be strong but the response to their lunacy lies in the fulfilment of Bhutto's vision and demands for holding free and fair elections in Pakistan and a politics free from the role of the security establishment."
10:35pm Saturday 29th December 2007

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