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Editorial | The Assassination of Benazir Bhutto

A flawed heroine

Benazir Bhutto was assassinated yesterday during a suicide attack that included bursts of gunfire and a bomb blast that left the former Pakistani prime minister mortally wounded.

Also a casualty was the Bush administration's foreign policy, which had placed its hopes for stability in Pakistan on a political marriage of convenience between Bhutto and Pervez Musharraf, president of the southwest Asian nation.

News reports said Bhutto was shot in the neck and chest after having the rooftop hatch of her car opened so she could wave to the crowd after a rally. The gunman apparently then set off a bomb, killing himself and at least 20 others.

The identity of the attacker was not immediately known. Bhutto's supporters blamed Musharraf for poor security and possible complicity in the attack. Most fingers, though, were pointed at the Islamic fanatics who had long threatened Bhutto. Those groups also hate Musharraf for aiding U.S. efforts to defeat the Taliban and capture al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

The Bush administration was instrumental in Bhutto's return to Pakistan in October, which ended eight years of exile. The brokered deal included Musharraf stepping down as head of the military so he could share civilian leadership with Bhutto. She was expected to become prime minister after parliamentary elections scheduled for Jan. 8.

Delaying the elections would give Bhutto's political party time to regroup and consider new leadership. But a delay is unlikely to douse the fiery rhetoric touched off by her death. Another opposition leader, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, now says he will boycott the elections. He called on Musharraf to resign to save Pakistan.

That the Pakistanis are frustrated with Musharraf is more than understandable to Americans, who have long wondered whether the $10 billion in U.S. aid sent to his regime since 9/11 has been money well spent. The Taliban still controls large portions of the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan - and bin Laden remains at large. Yet, with Bhutto gone, the Bush administration finds itself even less able to divorce itself from Musharraf.

The danger is tremendous. Pakistan, after all, has nuclear arms. Imagine what could become of those weapons should Pakistan collapse into the type of violence and chaos that Iraq experienced after Saddam Hussein's fall.

Sadly, it is in large measure due to President Bush's decision to make Iraq our military's primary focus after 9/11 that the Afghanistan/Pakistan situation has become so tenuous. Islamic fanatics, like the suicide bomber who killed Bhutto, abound in the region.

Bhutto is being remembered as a heroine. That is appropriate. Not that she didn't have flaws; charges of corruption tainted her terms as prime minister. But she and her family loved Pakistan. Her father and two brothers preceded her as victims of political violence. Pakistanis should honor their memories by shunning violence as they seek the democracy that Benazir Bhutto wanted so badly to achieve.