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Rebellions follow Bhutto assassination

Pakistanis fault U.S.-backed regime

Published Jan 2, 2008 11:55 PM

The crisis in Pakistan has entered a new and even more acute phase with the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, head of the Pakistan Peoples Party, who had returned from exile just two months earlier. She was killed on Dec. 27 while driving through a large welcoming crowd in Rawalpindi following a political rally.

The regimes of both Gen. Pervez Musharraf in Islamabad and George W. Bush in Washington rushed to blame the brutal murder on Islamic militants.

Their pronouncements failed to convince the public. Even the major imperialist newspapers in the U.S. and Britain have had to admit that the Pakistani people put the responsibility for Bhutto’s death squarely on the government.

Demonstrations and clashes with the armed bodies of the state continue across Pakistan. The mass demonstration of popular outrage has targeted especially offices of the government, Musharraf’s ruling party and symbols of the military and superrich elite, including hundreds of bank offices. Some 58 people were killed, most by troops and paramilitaries firing on the people.

A private videotape of the assassination aired widely in the Pakistani media and abroad, including on Britain’s Channel 4 News, shows Bhutto being felled by an assassin’s bullets before a bomb blast hits her car, contradicting the official account that she died, not from gunfire, but from hitting her head on a sunroof lever after the blast. The military refused to allow an autopsy to take place, but doctors at the hospital where she was treated said she appeared to have been killed by bullets to the head.

In an e-mail sent in October, after an earlier attempt had failed to kill her, Bhutto advised a British friend that if anything were to happen to her, she would hold Musharraf responsible.

U.S. supported military dictatorships

Pakistan, a major client state of the U.S. and ally in the Cold War beginning in the 1950s, has been under military rule for most of this time and has received billions of dollars in U.S. military aid and equipment. However, there were brief periods of elected civilian government between coups. Bhutto’s father held the post of prime minister during one of them; he was overthrown by the military and later hanged. Benazir Bhutto served twice as prime minister—from 1988-1990 and 1993-1996, when she was forced out of office, then charged with corruption and sent into exile.

General Musharraf, the latest in a string of military dictators, seized power in a coup in 1999 but later reinvented his rule by creating a political party and winning the presidency in an election widely regarded as rigged. During these eight years, the poverty of the masses has deepened while much of the country’s wealth has gone to the military elite. Musharraf himself has survived several assassination attempts.

After 9/11, Musharraf was strong-armed by the Bush administration into joining Washington’s “war on terror.” This antagonized many in this majority Islamic country, even though, in Washington’s eyes, he wasn’t doing enough to support the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan. On Sept. 24, 2006, Musharraf told CBS’s “60 Minutes” that U.S. officials had openly threatened to “bomb Pakistan back into the Stone Age” if it did not cooperate more vigorously with Washington’s war plans.

In the last year, his military forces carried out a massacre at a Muslim school right in Islamabad and also launched attacks on villages in the Northwest, where there is strong opposition to the U.S.-led war in neighboring Afghanistan.

Opposition to Musharraf’s rule became tempestuous this spring and summer after Supreme Court justices defied his authority, ruling that he could not run again for president while heading up the military. Demonstrations and strikes broke out all over the country. They were brutally broken up by the state and thousands, including hundreds of lawyers and jurists, were jailed for demanding an end to martial law and the restoration of democracy.

Musharraf sacked the judges and appointed a new Supreme Court, whose members did as they were told and ruled that his “re-election” for president, which had taken place during a boycott by the opposition, was valid, as long as he officially dropped the title of head of the armed forces, which he did. The stage was then set for parliamentary elections, which were set for Jan. 8, but which the Musharraf regime said on Jan. 1 would be postponed to February.

The deal that failed

Bhutto’s return in October from exile had been brokered by the Bush administration, which got General Musharraf to agree to drop the corruption charges. An article in the Washington Post of Dec. 28 described how Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, her powerful deputy John Negroponte and U.N. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad thought they had concocted a deal whereby Bhutto and Musharraf would share power in a coalition government that would continue to cooperate with Washington. Bhutto, it said, had agreed that U.S. planes could bomb targets in Pakistan’s Northwest territory, a stronghold of the Islamic movement opposed to Washington’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The idea was to keep Musharraf and the military in power, but with Bhutto giving the government a more democratic veneer.

“The administration concluded over the summer that a power-sharing deal with Ms. Bhutto might be the only way that General Musharraf could keep from being toppled,” wrote the New York Times bluntly on Oct. 20.

From the moment that Bhutto returned to Pakistan in October, however, it was clear that Musharraf had no intention of honoring the deal.

In her very first public appearance, at a huge rally in Karachi on Oct. 18, Bhutto narrowly missed being assassinated by powerful bomb blasts that killed 150 people, 50 of them her security guards. At that time, too, the government blamed Islamic militants, but her supporters told reporters that electric power to the whole area had gone out just before the blasts and blamed it on the regime.

Bhutto was then put under house arrest, where she continued to speak out against Musharraf, calling on him to step down. Her courage in the face of real threats on her life increased her mass support.

The PPP met just days after Bhutto’s assassination and elected her 19-year-old son, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, and her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, to take over the leadership, thus keeping this very wealthy dynasty at the helm of the largest party in Pakistan. The PPP is expected to win the most seats in the parliamentary elections—if the government allows them to be held.

Nawaz Sharif, head of the Pakistan Muslim League, who was prime minister until ousted by Musharraf’s coup in 1999, has called for the general to resign immediately from the presidency so “a government of national consensus” can be formed.

The Bush administration is now scrambling to try to put the pieces of its policy back together again. Its attempt to create a coalition government between the military dictatorship and the bourgeois opposition has failed miserably. After years of Washington’s support for Musharraf, even demanding that he be more ruthless against its perceived enemies, anti-U.S. sentiment is stronger than ever in Pakistan, among both Islamic and secular forces.

Washington’s credibility with its “friends,” already in tatters, has tanked. Who among the many exiled political figures around the world will want to trust its guarantees of their safety now?

The situation seems ripe for the mass movements in Pakistan to demand no secret deals, no more intervention by imperialism, and the creation of a truly democratic and sovereign government committed to using the nation’s resources to address the urgent needs of the people for adequate food, shelter, education and health care.

E-mail: [email protected]