Sharp exchanges over Pakistan bombing
By TIM SULLIVAN | Associated Press Writer | October 22, 2007
Venomous exchanges erupted Monday between Benazir Bhutto and Pakistan's miltary-led government, straining their emerging alliance, as politicians debated whether to restrict campaign rallies after the bombing that shattered Bhutto's homecoming.
The sharp words reflected the personal animosity that underlies much of Pakistani politics, and raised doubts about whether longtime enemies could become allies in support of President Gen. Pervez Musharraf after upcoming parliamentary elections.
On Thursday, a suicide attack on former Prime Minister Bhutto killed 136 people and wounded hundreds in Karachi as she made her triumphal return to Pakistan.
Authorities have pointed the finger at Islamic militants, perhaps linked to al-Qaida or the Taliban, and called for calm and a thorough investigation. Police are questioning three people but have yet to announce any breakthroughs.
But Bhutto and the head of the ruling party have been anything but calm.
According to Bhutto, the leader of the Pakistan Muslim League-Q, Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, is "protecting the killers." She gave no evidence to back up her claim or any further details.
Hussain gave a far different story. In an apparently sarcastic swipe at Bhutto, he said that her husband, working with Bhutto and other party leaders, arranged the blasts to stir up public sympathy. The proof: Bhutto went into her armored vehicle minutes before the bombs exploded and was not hurt.
"We will also say all this was a conspiracy," Hussain told Geo television, reacting to Bhutto's earlier accusations of possible government involvement in the attack. Instead, he said, Bhutto's husband, Asif Ali Zardari, "hatched a conspiracy and they implemented it."
Although his tone appeared to be tongue in cheek, such accusations often gain traction in Pakistan, where conspiracy theories thrive in its violent, intrigue-filled politics.
Bhutto's father was deposed as prime minister and then executed, one of her brothers died in a shoot-out with police, and another drowned mysteriously. Bhutto was arrested and went into exile, while her husband was tortured in custody after being detained on corruption charges in 1999.
Hours after last week's attack, Bhutto claimed elements in the government were trying to kill her, saying they were remnants of the regime of former military leader Gen. Zia-ul Haq, whose government ordered her father's execution.
Hussain's father, meanwhile, was killed in 1981 - allegedly by a militant group run by one of Bhutto's late brothers.
Bhutto is widely thought to have been allowed back from exile in a deal with Musharraf. In exchange, she is expected to link up with Hussain's party to back Musharraf in the January parliamentary vote.
The public battles, analysts say, reflect personal bitterness, but also the political roles.
"There is a lot of history to their problems, so it doesn't surprise me that there is rhetoric and mudslinging," said Shafqat Mahmood, a newspaper columnist and former leader in Bhutto's party.
The pair would be uneasy bedfellows in a coalition under Musharraf, he said. But it was possible the sniping was actually a calculated bid to dominate the media's election coverage - particularly now that the massive rallies common in Pakistani campaigning may not be allowed.
"Here are two parties in collusion with Musharraf and yet taking on each other and thus hogging the political space and leaving Nawaz Sharif by the wayside," Mahmood said.
Sharif, the prime minister forced into exile when Musharraf seized power in a 1999 coup, is Pakistan's other major political figure - and the man who would be left out by a Bhutto-Musharraf alliance. While authorities allowed Bhutto to return to Pakistan, Sharif was immediately expelled after he flew to the country last month from exile in Saudi Arabia.
His party is fighting the proposed restrictions on campaign rallies since it will be Sharif - the country's most popular leader according to a recent poll - who might hope to draw the biggest crowds and derail a Bhutto-Musharraf alliance.
Interior Minister Aftab Khan Sherpao said the proposal would allow gatherings in specific, well-protected areas, but would ban large processions and rallies.
Further violence, he indicated, could lead to a rescheduling of the vote.
"We do not want to postpone the elections and we do not want any sort of any excuse for that," he said. "We want a peaceful, conducive atmosphere."
Sadiq ul-Farooq, a leader of Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-N party, called the proposed restrictions a "grand rigging plan" and claimed it would prevent "popular opposition leaders from reaching their voters."
Ameer ul-Azeem, spokesman for a coalition of opposition religious parties, also denounced the move. "Since Musharraf knows the ruling party is not able to organize any big rallies, he is now thinking of depriving opposition parties of their right to campaign," ul-Azeem said.
Associated Press writers Stephen Graham and Sadaqat Jan contributed to this report.