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by Beena Sarwar

Bhutto Returns to Pakistan, Survives Suicide Assassination Try

(IPS) KARACHI -- The 'Jaanisar-e-Benazir' (bodyguards ready to die for Benazir) proclaimed the white t-shirts sported by Pakistan Peoples' Party (PPP) workers responsible for security around the convoy of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto as she returned to Pakistan on Thursday, after almost nine years of self-exile.

At least 50 of the jaanisars perished in the twin suicide bomber blasts unleashed, soon after midnight, on Bhutto's slow-moving armoured truck. With a death toll of at least 140 dead and over 500 injured, the attack was one of the worst in Pakistan's political history -- one that is peppered with mysterious, unresolved assassinations and bombings. Addressing a press conference at her residence on Friday, Bhutto attributed her near-miraculous escape to the courage of the janisaars who, after the first explosion, stood their ground and surrounded the truck, deflecting a direct hit by a second attacker.

"We had been expecting an attack, but not on such a large scale," Bhutto's spokesperson senator Farhatullah Babar told IPS after the chaotic, crowded press conference. "We were not sure to what extent we should expose her, but given the crowd that had turned out, her visibility at the front of the truck rather than behind the bullet-proof glass or inside the vehicle, was a minimum for the people."

However, even some sympathizers feel that better planning would have prevented the carnage, particularly since the threat to Bhutto was well known. President Gen. Pervez Musharraf, as well as several of his political allies had been warning Bhutto of such an attack while she was still abroad.

Sadiq Khan, a retired businessman, thinks that the PPP should have ensured that Bhutto got home before dark. "They should have made sure that her truck was right in front and led the pace, instead of moving so slowly," he told IPS, "particularly since they were warned that they would be attacked."

Non-sympathizers were less kind. "It's just an ego trip," says Hina Arif, a hairdresser, criticizing Bhutto for not using the helicopter option to get home from the airport. Babar, the PPP spokesperson, insists that the expectations of three million or so people who swarmed to Karachi from all over the country made the cavalcade ride unavoidable.

Bhutto had somewhat naively dismissed the threats, holding that "no true Muslim" would attack her because Muslims are forbidden to attack women and innocent people, and are also prohibited from suicide attacks. Those who carried out Thursday's attacks, she said at the press conference, "are not Muslims."

The attacks triggered off a spate of accusations, counter accusations and conspiracy theories. Bhutto herself initially laid blame on the legacy of Gen. Ziaul Haq, the military dictator who had her father Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto hanged during a particularly repressive regime.

The attackers, Bhutto said at the press conference, were "part of the militant minority that does not enjoy the support of the people... They are saying that it is not safe for peaceful people to gather, it is only safe for the militants to gather, because the peaceful people will not attack them."

Bhutto also hinted at the involvement of Pakistan's intelligence agencies in the attacks, citing three men whose names she refused to divulge, but whom she named in a letter to Musharraf, earlier this week. "I said that if something happens to me, I will hold them responsible rather than militant groups like the Taliban, al-Qaeda or the Pakistani Taliban," she elaborated.

Significantly, her party has demanded the removal of the Intelligence Bureau chief, Ijaz Shah. Pakistan's shadowy intelligence agencies have long been linked with fundamentalist militancy in the country.

Political observers note that those who stand most to lose from Bhutto's arrival are the ruling Pakistan Muslim League (PML-Q) and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM). However, the top leadership of both parties promptly called Bhutto to condole with her. "Naming other political parties is just a red herring," said Bhutto, again referring to the mysterious three names she has provided to Musharraf.

Musharraf gains politically from Bhutto's return to Pakistan since the Washington-facilitated ‘deal' he has struck with her allows him to remain active in Pakistani politics. Not surprisingly, he was among the first to call and condole with the PPP leader he once loved to hate. Like Bhutto, he has termed the attacks as a "conspiracy against democracy."

In the several television interviews she had given, in the days before her arrival in Karachi, Bhutto had not quite endeared herself to the powers that be in Pakistan. For instance, she told interviewers that, if elected, she would have A.Q. Khan, the ‘father of Pakistan's nuclear bomb' extradited to the United States to face inquries on his clandestine activities.

Islamist militant groups operating in the tribal areas of Pakistan, and frequently targeted by the U.S. army from across the border in Afghanistan, are already angry at the backing Bhutto is getting from Washington. And then she has declared that she would allow U.S. troops to get at al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, who is believed to be hiding in the tribal areas.

Worst of all, Bhutto had supported the army raid ordered by Musharraf on the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) in Islamabad in July to rid it of heavily armed al-Qaeda and Taliban supporters who had converted it into a fortress. More than 100 people died in the bloodbath that followed.

Given the multiplicity of interests that want to see Bhutto eliminated, the PPP is undecided on how best to pursue the attempt on its leader. "We are still deciding whether to register a police case, or ask for an inquiry by a supreme court judge or a parliamentary inquiry," says Farhatullah Babar.

He admits that inquiries and police investigations have rarely yielded results in the past -- even in cases as high profile as the assassination of the country's first prime minister Liaqat Ali Khan in 1951, the mid-air explosion that killed Ziaul Haq in 1988, and the murder of Benazir's own brother Mir Murtaza Bhutto during a ‘police encounter' in 1993. Although Bhutto herself was prime minister when Murtaza was killed, no headway was ever made in his murder case.

Whether or not those responsible for Thursday's tragedy are ever identified, the first suicide bomber attack on the top leadership of a popular political party is widely expected to further negatively impact democratic politics in Pakistan.

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Albion Monitor   October 18, 2007   (

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