ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - I was supposed to interview Benazir Bhutto on Thursday night.
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I had spent the day in Peshawar, the Pakistani city closest to the tribal areas where militant Islamists are now in control. I was talking to Pakistani experts about the expanding influence of religious militants and suicide bombers in a country with nuclear weapons.
As I began the three-hour drive back to the Pakistani capital of Islamabad, I got a call: Bhutto, two-time prime minister, female leader of one of Pakistan's most powerful political parties, had been killed by a suicide bomber with a gun after speaking at an election rally.
When I reached the darkened streets of Islamabad, most stores had shut, and little knots of people were clustered outside with cell phones, calling relatives and trying to express their shock. Mohammed Ahmed, a young electronics salesman at a Sony Center, told me, "Everyone is nervous. This is a disaster for the country. She was a great leader and there will be aftershocks from her death."
The mood in the country reminds me of the overwhelming grief, the clinging to family and television news, that followed John F. Kennedy's assassination. But there's a big difference: Pakistanis are angry at this murder, an anger that has already led to violence and could plunge the country into chaos. And just about every Pakistani with whom I spoke blamed her death not on al-Qaeda, but on their own government - and the United States.
Benazir, as Pakistanis called her, had already cheated death in October, on the day she made an emotional return from exile to run in elections. A suicide bomb narrowly missed her but killed around 140 supporters. The government had done little to investigate that bombing, and many of her followers believed government intelligence agencies were behind the attack.
Once Bhutto was home, President Pervez Musharraf reneged on a power-sharing deal with her that had been brokered by the United States. He also declared martial law, and threw Supreme Court judges and lawyers in jail. Many doubted elections would ever be held.
"People are pointing a finger at the government" for Bhutto's death, I was told by Athar Minallah, a prominent Pakistani lawyer, "because they think it wanted to postpone the election and didn't want Benazir back."
Others argue that the military might have killed Bhutto because she wanted to curb its influence and that of intelligence agencies. They note that she was killed in Rawalpindi, the city where the military is headquartered. Rumors are swirling that the bullet that killed her came from a sniper, and that the suicide bomber was meant to cover his tracks.
Anger at Musharraf was already running high, and Bhutto's murder could lead to a public explosion. That anger is also heaped on the United States because the Bush administration still supports Musharraf.
I think one can make as good a case, however, that the murder was committed by jihadi extremists. Bhutto was the prime ministerial candidate most outspoken about the need to clamp down on Pakistan's religious militants. On Thursday morning she had met with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and told him that these militants threatened not only Pakistan and Afghanistan but also their region and the world.
In a large public meeting on Sunday, Bhutto accused the Musharraf government of failing to stop militant violence: "They always try to stop democratic forces, but they don't make any effort to check extremists, terrorists, and fanatics," she said. She also condemned Musharraf for failing to clamp down on radical religious schools that teach youngsters how to make bombs.
Her outspoken critique of the jihadis was a risk in a country where many Pakistanis think the United States is forcing them to fight its war on al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Bhutto thought differently. She said it was Pakistan's war, too, and warned that the militants wanted to undermine the Pakistani state. For that, many Pakistanis labeled her an American agent.
But she rightly believed her country's future was at risk. Last summer, when she spoke in New York at the Council on Foreign Relations, I asked her what she would do differently from her first two (and many think failed) prime ministerial terms. She replied, "If I had it to do again, I would not have tolerated the rise of the Taliban." She was referring to the Pakistani military's support for the Afghan Taliban in the mid-1990s; the clear implication was that she would combat current Pakistani support for the Taliban if she became prime minister. Whether she could have rallied the military behind her we will never know.
Her death most likely means that elections won't be held. An extended Musharraf government will face bitter opposition on the streets, especially since there is unlikely to be any transparent investigation into her murder. And religious militants will benefit from the political vacuum that ensues.
One of Pakistan's top experts on militant Islam, journalist Ahmed Rashid, told me: "I think (the killing) has all the hallmarks of al-Qaeda. It was well planned, well trained. The country is now in a state of chaos. The country is an al-Qaeda target now."
Benazir Bhutto foresaw this danger. And now she is gone.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Reach her at trubinphillynews.com.
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