What does Bhutto’s assassination mean to U.S. efforts in the region?
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.
While awaiting formal confirmation of Bhutto’s death in an attack on an election rally, U.S. officials ” who had labored to promote stability in the nuclear-armed country that has been an anti-terrorism ally ” huddled to assess the impact of Bhutto’s death just two weeks before legislative elections in the turbulent nation in which her party was expected to do well.
“Certainly, we condemn the attack on this rally,” said deputy State Department spokesman Tom Casey. “It demonstrates that there are still those in Pakistan who want to subvert reconciliation and efforts to advance democracy.” His statement was echoed by White House spokesman Scott Stanzel, who is with President Bush at Bush’s Texas ranch.
A U.S. official speaking on grounds of anonymity confirmed that Bhutto was assassinated. No person or group has claimed responsibility for her death, the official said.
In Crawford, Texas, Stanzel said Bush “has been informed about the situation in Pakistan. He was told about it this morning during his regular briefing” and said the president was to appear before reporters outside his ranch house here later Thursday morning to discuss the situation.
Bhutto 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. On that occasion she narrowly escaped injury.
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 indispensible counter-terrorism 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.
Under the law, which provides a total of $300 million in aid to Pakistan and was signed by President Bush on Wednesday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice also must guarantee Pakistan is implementing democratic reforms, including releasing political prisoners and restoring an independent judiciary.
The law also prevents any of the funds can be used for cash transfer assistance to Pakistan, but that stipulation had already been adopted by the administration.
Despite the congressional move, Richard Boucher, the assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian affairs who had been instrumental in engineering the Bhutto-Musharraf reconciliation, said he had little doubt that the administration would get the money.
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