Bhutto Worried About 'Security Issues'

Calling in Scotland Yard won't stop the conspiracy theories over her death.

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Benazir Bhutto was a woman who clearly understood the dangers she faced. On October 21, shortly after returning home from eight years in exile and surviving an assassination attempt, she E-mailed one of her many American friends, Joe Pascal. "We have a lot of security issues," she typed into her Blackberry. "The GOP (government of Pakistan) says it will solve, but then there is no movement. Soldiering on." Just over two months later, she was dead.

Given the tenor of politics in Pakistan today, it was perhaps inevitable that the assassination of a leading political figure, particularly one as polarizing as Bhutto, would become hopelessly mired in conspiracy theories and controversy. Indeed, even the cause of her death remains in dispute, let alone the perpetrator.

The government quickly accused extremists, but most Pakistanis blamed the government. President Pervez Musharraf's more charitable critics castigated him for failing to provide adequate security. Others accused his administration of orchestrating the attack. Nobody believed the Interior Ministry spokesman who stepped out less than 12 hours after the assassination to finger Baitullah Mehsud, a tribal leader alleged to be allied with al Qaeda.

Instead, many Pakistanis were reminded of a familiar national joke: Three police officers from the United States, Britain, and Pakistan are having dinner together. The American brags to his colleagues that, back home, police solve most crimes 24 hours after they happen. The Brit counters that his force is so good that it needs only 12 hours. "That's nothing," says the Pakistani, laughing. "We know 24 hours ahead of time when and where the crime is going to happen."

The Pakistani government certainly did not help itself early on, hosing down the crime scene almost immediately and intimidating Bhutto's doctors to prevent them from talking to the press. Government spokespeople offered several versions of how she died, first blaming the bomb, then shrapnel, then citing a skull fracture caused by the bomb slamming her head into her vehicle—even as party loyalists and family members insisted they saw fatal bullet wounds.

After nearly a week of pressure to bring in foreign investigators or a United Nations team, Musharraf finally asked Britain's Scotland Yard to send detectives. Tariq Fatmi, a former Pakistani ambassador to the United States, says that foreign involvement is the only hope for satisfying Pakistanis. "The general public will not accept any investigations conducted by government agencies," he says.

Examining evidence. Investigators will look into the government's claim that Mehsud was behind the attack, despite a denial issued by the tribal leader's spokesman. The Interior Ministry's key piece of evidence is what it claims to be an intercepted telephone conversation during which the pro-Taliban militant congratulates his men for the successful attack on Bhutto. Additional evidence, however, will be hard to come by.

Either way, Bhutto's assassination is likely to remain the centerpiece of Pakistani conspiracy theories for years. "It has been a tradition in Pakistan that whenever a high-profile personality is killed, the murderers are never arrested," says Babar Ali, a cartoonist. "The government constitutes investigation committees just to quench the people's anger, but there is never any result."

Bhutto knew whom she would have blamed. In an E-mail to another American friend last October, she typed, "I wld hold Musharraf responsible."