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Bush demands justice for Bhutto murderers; assassination complicates US policy
Pakistan Bhutto NY1 5201564
President Clinton escorts Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto through the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, seen in this April 11, 1995, file photo. Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto, 54, was assassinated Thursday, Dec. 27, 2007, in Rawalpindi, Pakistan in a suicide attack. At least 20 others were also killed in the attack on a campaign rally where Bhutto had just spoken. - photo by Associated Press
    WASHINGTON — The Bush administration scrambled Thursday with the implications of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s assassination after investing significant diplomatic capital in promoting reconciliation between her and President Pervez Musharraf.
    President Bush, speaking briefly to reporters at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, demanded that those responsible for the killing be brought to justice and the White House said there needs to be a thorough investigation.
    ‘‘The United States strongly condemns this cowardly act by murderous extremists who are trying to undermine Pakistan’s democracy,’’ said Bush, who looked tense and took no questions. He expressed his deepest condolences to Bhutto’s family and to the families of others slain in the attack and to all the people of Pakistan.
    His appearance came as U.S. officials here struggled to cope with the immense policy implications of the assassination on relations with a nuclear-armed country that has received billions of dollars in American financial assistance and is an ally in the war on terrorism. White House spokesman Scott Stanzel said Bush spoke briefly by phone with Musharraf but the spokesman said he had no details.
    Said Sen. Richard Lugar, leading Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, ‘‘This is a critical moment for Pakistan, for the region, and for the community of nations as we encourage democracy and stability in Pakistan.’’
    Bhutto was mortally wounded Thursday in a suicide attack that also killed at least 20 others at a campaign rally in Rawalpindi. She served twice as Pakistan’s prime minister between 1988 and 1996. She had returned to Pakistan from an eight-year exile Oct. 18. Her homecoming parade in Karachi was also targeted by a suicide attacker, killing more than 140 people.
    Stanzel said it was too soon to say who was responsible.
    ‘‘I’m aware that al-Qaida may have claimed responsibility,’’ Stanzel said. ‘‘I’m aware of news reports of that. But I don’t have any specifics for you on that.’’ He did say, ‘‘Whoever perpetrated this attack is an enemy of democracy and has used a tactic that al-Qaida is very familiar with, and that is suicide bombing and the taking of innocent life to try to disrupt the democratic process.’’
    The White House expects an open review of the assassination. Stanzel said that was crucial for the long-term prospects of democracy in Pakistan. He would not get specific about what role, if any, the United States would play but stressed that the United States considers Pakistan a close ally.
    ‘‘It’s important to have a thorough investigation,’’ Stanzel said. ‘‘We expect that will happen ... I think we’re willing to work with our allies in Pakistan to make sure that does happen.’’
    Stanzel said it is up to the Pakistanis to determine whether the postponement of the upcoming parliamentary elections is appropriate given Bhutto’s assassination.
    The United States had been at the forefront of foreign powers trying to arrange reconciliation between Bhutto and Musharraf, who under heavy U.S. pressure resigned as army chief and earlier this month lifted a state of emergency, in the hope it would put Pakistan back on the road to democracy. Bhutto’s return to the country after years in exile and the ability of her party to contest free and fair elections had been a cornerstone of Bush’s policy in Pakistan, where U.S. officials had watched Musharraf’s growing authoritarianism with increasing unease.
    Those concerns were compounded by the rising threat from al-Qaida and Taliban extremists, particularly in Pakistan’s largely ungoverned tribal areas bordering Afghanistan despite the fact that Washington had pumped nearly $10 billion in aid into the country since Musharraf became an indispensable counterterrorism ally after Sept. 11, 2001.
    Irritated by the situation, Congress last week imposed new restrictions on U.S. assistance to Pakistan, including tying $50 million in military aid to State Department assurances that the country is making ‘‘concerted efforts’’ to prevent terrorists from operating inside its borders.
    In his comments in Crawford, Bush said, ‘‘Mrs. Bhutto served her nation twice as prime minister and she knew that her return to Pakistan earlier this year put her life at risk, yet she refused to allow assassins to dictate the course of her country.’’
    ‘‘We stand with the people of Pakistan in their struggle against the forces of terror and extremism. We urge them to honor Benazir Bhutto’s memory by continuing with the democratic process for which she so bravely gave her life,’’ he said.
    Other U.S. officials and presidential candidates also issued statements expressing shock at Bhutto’s assassination. Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden of Delaware, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said, ‘‘I am convinced Ms. Bhutto would have won free and fair elections next week. The fact that she was by far Pakistan’s most popular leader underscores the fact that there is a vast, moderate majority in Pakistan that must have a clear voice in the system.’’
    ———
    Associated Press reporters Charles Babington and Eileen Sullivan in Washington and Ben Feller in Crawford, Texas contributed to this story.
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