The attack came just hours after four supporters of Pakistan's former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif died when members of another political party opened fire on them at a rally near the Islamabad airport Thursday, Pakistan police said.
I am not a Pakistani political expert, I'll pass commentary off to more knowledgable people other than saying that this is not good.
Update by shamanic: This story is likely to be the most pressing news today, and we'll be updating this post as more information becomes available.
The Washington Post is reporting that another attack in Rawalpindi preceded the Bhutto assassination:
Also Thursday, a rooftop sniper opened fire on supporters of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif at a different pre-election rally in Rawalpindi, leaving four dead and at least five injured.If these were coordinated attacks, this is an extremely muscular terrorist attack.
Update 2 Pakistani Spectator is reporting rioting is occuring by the PPP supporters
In Rawalpindi, right in front of Rawalpindi General Hospital where Late Benazir Bhutto died and her dead body is present right now, workers of People's Party are sitting and weeping loudly. In other areas of Rawalpindi like Faizabad, Saddar and Murree Road, angry crowd is burning shops and vehicles and shouting slogans against the terorists.Update 3 By Cernig This is going to be the main story of the day so we'll be updateing this post and bumping it to the top of the page regularly.
On Dusht Road, Peshawar, angry crowd has blocked the main road.
All the roads leading to capital Islamabad have been barricaded and blocked and there are reports of collision of police with protesters.
Memeorandum has a lot of reaction to the news right now and a lot of speculation. In comments here, "the BHC" is stating the obvious - there has to be a lot of suspicion about possible Musharraf complicity or even direction in this attack. Tas explains why - Rawalpindi is the most militarized town in Pakistan.
Being located less than ten miles to the south of Islamabad, the city is home to a Pakistan Army corps that can hold sway in any potential coup, so leaders of Pakistan always appoint a general they can trust to run the Rawalpindi Corps (also known as "10 Corps" and "X Corps"). Case in point, one of the last commanders of the Rawalpindi Corps was General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani –- the man President Musharraf just picked to replace himself as the Chief of Staff for Pakistan's Army.Many observers will note, as they did when two spectactularly failed attempts on Musharraf's life occurred in Rawalpindi which gave him an excuse to round up some dissenters, that this act could not have been launched, nevermind come close to being successful, without help from members of Pakistan's military and intelligence apparatuses. As Ali Eteraz notes: "Its very important to see what Musharraf does. If he does not arrest any terrorist sympathizers in the military, that’s a problem."
Steve Benen notes:
Widespread unrest in Pakistan is practically inevitable, and Bhutto supporters outside the hospital where she was treated began chanting “Dog, Musharraf, dog,” in reference to Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf.And quotes Spencer Ackerman in conversations with analyst Barnett Rubin:
Musharraf, of course, had promised free parliamentary elections next month, coinciding with the end of his “emergency rule,” though, given Bhutto’s reported assassination, the country may be poised to endure additional turmoil.
Bhutto's assassination presents an opportunity for Musharraf. "It's very possible Musharraf will declare [another] state of emergency and postpone the elections," Rubin continues. "That will confirm in many people's minds the idea that the military is behind" the assassination. For it's part, the U.S. will likely "be scrambling to say the election either needs to be held as planned or postponed rather than canceled, but Musharraf is in a position to preempt that."However (via Hot Air), AKI news service says Al Qaeda is claiming responsibility.
As a result, Rubin says, U.S. strategy is "in tatters."
A spokesperson for the al-Qaeda terrorist network has claimed responsibility for the death on Thursday of former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto.However, given that the Pakistani intelligence agency, the ISI, is alleged to have consistently sheltered and directed both Al Qaeda and the Taliban as proxies in much the same way as the Iranian Quods Force is reputed to have done with Iraqi Shiite groups and Hizboullah, that claim of responsibility may just be the first link in a chain.
“We terminated the most precious American asset which vowed to defeat [the] mujahadeen,” Al-Qaeda’s commander and main spokesperson Mustafa Abu Al-Yazid told Adnkronos International (AKI) in a phone call from an unknown location, speaking in faltering English. Al-Yazid is the main al-Qaeda commander in Afghanistan.
Update 4 By Cernig The Times of India reports that all the heightened security was in Islamabad after a warning from the Pakistani Interior Ministry that assassination attempts would be made there. Significant? Quite possibly. The Guardian's Jason Burke runs through the various suspects - including AQ, the Taliban and Kashmiri extremists, but notes:
Bhutto herself, talking to me two weeks ago, spoke of the hardcore of senior military officers, spies, retired generals and others who she believed ran a shadow state in Pakistan with strong Islamic militant sympathies and who wanted to destroy her. She constantly made such claims that were often exaggerated, but they did contain a kernel of truth.Opposition groups are already warning of civil war:
There are many within the Pakistani establishment who would have wanted her dead. Is President Musharaf among them? I think not. He is a soldier, a nationalist, a pragmatic and far from a convinced democrat, but I do not think he is a closet Islamist. He does not benefit from her murder as it undermines his sole justification for being in power: that he is the only person around capable of maintaining order - with the army as well. Yet there are others within the military, and especially the sprawling intelligence services, who do not necessarily follow his orders.
Riaz Malik of the opposition party Pakistan Movement for Justice (Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf) warned: "The impact will be that Pakistan is in more turmoil - it will be the start of civil war in Pakistan. There is a very real danger of civil war in Pakistan."The London Times speculates that if the elections go ahead, the PPP will coalesce around another leader - probably Ameen Fahim, the party vice-president who ran the party during Bhutto's years of exile - and go on to a landslide victory.
He said while suspicion was likely to fall on insurgent groups based in the northern tribal areas near the Afghan border, the killing was bound to increase dissatisfaction with the regime of the president, Pervez Musharraf.
"There will be a lot of fingers pointed at the government," he said.
Former Pakistan prime minister Nawaz Sharif sat with Bhutto's body at the hospital before describing the death as "a tragedy for the entire nation".
He told the BBC's News 24: "There has been a serious lapse in security. The government should have ensured the protection of Benazir Bhutto."
...Hamid Khan, a spokesman from the Pakistan embassy, said it was too early to comment on whether there was a need to impose a state of emergency or reschedule the election to protect the public.
"It is too early to make any assumptions, but obviously this is a major development and the president and the government will be looking at every dimension," he said.
Update 5 by shamanic
There seems to be a lot of feeling that Musharaf himself would be the primary beneficiary of the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, but I think that's false. His country stands a real chance of falling apart today, a not-unpredictable outcome from this, and the key beneficiaries would be the tribal zones and their Taliban and AQ inhabitants. Bhutto, meaningfully or not, had announced a hard line policy approach to these regions.
That this may have included Islamist elements within the military is a straightforward enough assertion, and may well be true. That those groups are tied to Musharaf or his coterie of generals is -- at least based on my limited understanding of Pakistan's internal workings -- unlikely. These are the groups that Musharaf is warring against internally, and the groups his generals most fear. The generals will be the first to lose their heads if the Islamist elements beneath them take over.
Update 6 By Cernig I'm going to disagree with Shamanic on this one. Musharraf has already proven he and his military could hold the line against massive civil unrest in the areas he controls. As for the area he doesn't control - well, no-one does. He has everything to gain from having a proxy group bump off bhutto. TPM reports:
After an October attack on Bhutto's life in Karachi, the ex-prime minister warned "certain individuals in the security establishment [about the threat] and nothing was done," says Husain Haqqani, a confidante of Bhutto's for decades. "There is only one possibility: the security establishment and Musharraf are complicit, either by negligence or design. That is the most important thing. She's not the first political leader killed, since Musharraf took power, by the security forces."It may well be that some Islamist extremist group will eventually get the blame for assassinating Bhutto, but no Islamist group in Pakistan is free of the Pakistani intelligence agency's influence. All, from AQ and the Taliban on down, have been used as proxies by the ISI. According to some reports, British intelligence even gave the US Mullah Omar's telephone number - at his ISI safe house in Quetta, Pakistan. The current head of the Pakistani military, a long-time Musharraf loyalist, was promoted to that post from his previous position as head of the ISI. Politically, the main islamist party backs Musharraf in the Pakistani parliament. The notion that Musharraf is battling or fears his own supporters or proxies is simply spin promulgated by Musharraf and his ISI themselves.
Haqqani notes that Bhutto died of a gunshot wound to the neck. "It's like a hit, not a regular suicide bombing," he says. "It's quite clear that someone who considers himself Pakistan's Godfather has a very different attitude toward human life than you and I do."
As for what comes next: Haqqani doubts that Musharraf will go forward with scheduled elections. "The greatest likelihood is that this was aimed not just aimed at Benazir Bhutto but at weakening Pakistan's push for democracy," he says.
Update 7 by shamanic
While Musharaf is certainly an extremely powerful figure in Pakistan, I don't think he's the master player you give him credit for being. He has stumbled badly from time to time, and several times this year. Western diplomats reported that he was shocked by the intensity of western disapproval of the state of emergency, and he was likely pretty panicked when western papers began to focus on strategies for a post-Musharaf Pakistan.
Also worth noting, Musharaf has also been the target of several assassination attempts by some of the groups you refer to as "his own supporters or proxies." The situation is obviously more complicated than every group in Pakistan being pawns or proxies for Musharaf or an unfailingly loyal (a highly suspect proposition) ISI.
None of this is to say that Musharaf couldn't have been involved, but I was surprised by comments here and elsewhere issuing very black-and-white, knee jerk reactions about Musharaf's windfall in this situation. If anything, his future becomes less certain as a result.
Update 8 By Cernig Sha should have written "Musharaf has also been the target of several spectacularily unsuccessful and cack-handed assassination attempts" - as when two "assassins" went to the trouble of hauling a heavy machinegun and it's anti-aircraft mount up a few flights of stairs before shooting at Musharraf's helicopter with an AK-47, then running away leaving the machinegun behind as evidence of "seriousness' and escaping through the heavy security cordon set up for Musharraf's visit that day. It's also difficult to imagine that the ISI could have an agent who acted as a key link with al-Qaeda leaders, including escorting Osama Bin Laden, without the dictator's knowledge.
Bhutto's own words from her CNN op-ed in November look increasingly prescient to me:
I have long claimed that the rise of extremism and militancy in Pakistan could not happen without support from elements within the current administration. My return to my country poses a threat to the forces of extremism that have thrived under a dictatorship. They want to stop the restoration of democracy at any price. They have exploited a poor, desperate, and powerless people and allowed extremists the right environment in which to flourish.Bhutto went on to say that nothing in the October attack on her proved Musharraf's involvement, but hinted that his state apparatus and political proxies moving so swiftly to capitalise on it was certainly suspicious.
The ruling party is an artificial, political party created in the headquarters of the Inter-Services Intelligence (Pakistan's equivalent of the CIA) during the General Elections of 2002. Its core support comes from the political partners of the military dictator of the '80s, General Zia al-Haq, who empowered the most radical elements within the Afghan Mujahedeen who went on to morph into al-Qaeda, Taliban and the Pakistani militants of today.
Update Too Many by shamanic
Okay, color me bored. Could Musharaf have orchestrated the assassination of his political rival? Absolutely. Could his state security apparatus have acted on its own to assassinate Bhutto? Sho nuf. Could a rogue element of the military have killed Benazir Bhutto? Yup. Could any of dozens of big or little extremist groups, including al Qaeda, have coordinated this attack? Indeedly-do.
Readers should feel free to stick any other possible scenarios in comments. Surely there's no end to the sources of potential assassins, so jump on in! Bonus points for indicting George Bush for supporting Pervez Musharaf who promoted the general who instituted the policy that caused the assassin to be hired/recruited/manipulated into shooting a woman and then detonating himself with explosives! C'mon, everybody play!