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U.N. Bhutto Probe Charges Cover-Up by Musharraf Govt

Haider Rizvi

UNITED NATIONS, Apr 16 2010 (IPS) - Who killed Benazir Bhutto, the popular Pakistani leader and first female head of state in the Muslim world – al Qaeda or the Taliban or the country’s military leadership, which has enjoyed the backing of the United States for the past several decades?

There may never be a definitive answer, but a new report made public by an inquiry commission established by the U.N. last July suggests that all these entities had something to do with Bhutto’s Dec. 27, 2007 assassination after leaving a campaign rally, two weeks before general elections were due.

“The investigation was severely hampered by intelligence agencies and other government officials, which impeded the search for the truth,” Heraldo Muñoz, chair of the Bhutto Commission of Inquiry and permanent representative of Chile to the U.N., told reporters Thursday.

“These officials, in part fearing intelligence agencies’ involvement, were unsure of how vigorously they ought to pursue actions which they knew, as professionals, they should have taken,” he said.

The commission’s report, based on interviews with 250 people in and outside Pakistan as well as other evidence, says the official investigation focused on “low-level operatives and placed little or no focus on investigating those further up the hierarchy in the planning, financing and execution of the assassination”.

Within hours of the killing, carried out by a teenage suicide bomber who also fired shots at her, the Gen. Pervez Musharraf government claimed a Taliban leader with links to al Qaeda named Baitullah Mehsud was involved – a charge Mehsud denied.

The Musharraf government was a staunch ally of the George W. Bush administration in its so-called “war on terror”, and the U.S. initially backed its assertions that Islamic extremists were behind the killing.

Musharraf not only refused to allow an international probe, but had also rejected Bhutto’s demand for the removal of officials she suspected to be involved in an earlier attack on a campaign rally in October, which she believed to have been masterminded by Pakistan’s powerful Inter Services Intelligence (ISI).

According to experts on Afghanistan and Pakistan, the ISI was actively involved in setting up training camps for Islamist “holy warriors” who fought the Soviets in the 1980s. Many analysts believe close links still exist between the ISI and militant Islamist groups.

Muñoz said the ISI conducted a parallel investigation, whose evidence was “selectively shared” with police.

Bhutto had returned to Pakistan in 2008 after living in exile for about eight years. The three-member commission’s report notes that Bhutto faced threats from a number of sources, including al Qaeda, the Taliban, local jihadi groups and “potentially from elements in the Pakistani establishment”.

Shortly before the release of the report, a U.N. official told IPS that it was likely to cause a political storm in Pakistan because it strongly criticises the actions of the army leadership.

“It is going to have some repercussions over there,” said the official, who asked not to be named.

Pakistan, an artificial nation carved out of British India in 1947, has been ruled by military dictators for well over 30 years. Almost all of them enjoyed full backing from Washington. Bhutto’s father, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, was the only Pakistani leader who openly clashed with the U.S. He was hanged by the military dictator Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq in 1979.

Bhutto was 25 when her father was executed. She spent five years in solitary confinement before her captors let her seek medical treatment in London in 1984. When she returned home in April 1986, millions of people took to the streets to show their support for her determination to challenge the army rule.

She won national elections in 1988 and became the first-ever woman prime minister, but could not complete her five-year term due to mounting hostility from the army establishment. Bhutto regained power in 1993, but her term was cut short again by another president close to the army leadership. In both cases, she was thrown out of the office on corruption charges that were never proven.

After living in exile for eight years, she reached an understanding with Musharraf that would have allowed her to run for prime minister and him to remain in office as president. But the U.S.-brokered deal did not work. During her 2007 election campaign, Bhutto not only posed a strong challenge to religious extremists, but also attacked Musharraf for cracking down on the judiciary, media and civil society.

The Musharraf regime changed its version of events leading to Bhutto’s death. First it said the attack was carried out by a suicide bomber. Later, officials said she was killed when the force of the bomb blast knocked her head against the sun roof of her vehicle.

Leaders of Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party have consistently said she was killed by two bullets, one of which pierced her skull and another which hit her in the neck. Her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, Pakistan’s current president, refused to allow an autopsy on her body.

Muñoz said it was now up to Pakistani authorities “to do what has to be done”. But many long-time observers of Pakistani politics doubt the truth will ever come out.

“This is a pattern in Pakistan,” said Shaheen Sehbai, editor of Pakistan’s leading English-language newspaper. “The intelligence agencies in Pakistan do investigations according to their own tailor-made needs and requirements.”

He said no intelligence agency would conduct an investigation if there is “even a one percent chance” that it would reveal some of its own members are involved in a crime.

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