Pakistanis blame Musharraf for turmoil

( AP )- The assassination of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto has pitched Pakistan into a political freefall and raised fears that increasingly bitter divisions in the society are turning the country into another Iraq.

Shocked citizens blame the deepening turmoil on President Pervez Musharraf and his U.S.-backed crackdown on Islamic extremists. Overwhelmingly poor and more concerned with survival than anti-Western terrorism, most crave stability above all, and many believe things will only get better if Musharraf resigns.

"The government of Musharraf has created an Afghanistan and Iraq-like situation in our country," said Zaheer Ahmad, 47, who works at a private clinic in Multan . "I don't know who killed Benazir Bhutto. But I do know that it is the result of Musharraf's wrong and bad policies."

While many Pakistanis want him gone, there is no consensus on who could replace Musharraf - or whether anyone can unify the country's bickering political factions.

The suicide attack that killed Bhutto on Thursday has unleashed a maelstrom of anger among her supporters and three days of unrest have left more than 40 dead and tens of millions of dollars in damage. In some cities, security forces are now authorized to shoot rioters on sight.

Her killing has also deepened the sense that the rule of law, let alone prospects for democracy after eight years of authoritarian rule under Musharraf , are now in danger.

Bhutto was the leader of the biggest secular political party and lionized by the rural poor.

Although her strongest support came from her home province of Sindh , she was perhaps unique in Pakistan for having national appeal across ethnic and religious divides, including among the moderate Muslim majority and minority Christians and Hindus.

There is an alarming gap between Pakistan's rich elite - which she belonged to - and the majority of the 160 million people with a per capita annual income of just $720.

Critics derided her a political opportunist, tainted by corruption allegations during her two terms in office. Nevertheless, her passing has left a vacuum in Pakistani politics.

The most natural successor to Bhutto is another former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif , who leads the other main opposition party.

Sharif is more conservative than Bhutto and rose to political prominence under a former military regime. It appears very unlikely he could coexist with Musharraf , who toppled him in a 1999 coup.

He has demanded Musharraf's resignation and has vowed to take vengeance against the "rulers" for Bhutto's killing.

The U.S. is pressing for Jan. 8 parliamentary elections to be held on time, but few in Pakistan believe that is a panacea for the current crisis.

"The most important question in Pakistan's politics is how to overcome the menace of religious extremists who want to impose themselves on society by force," said journalism professor Mehdi Hasan . "Unless there is a consensus on that, holding elections and democracy cannot change the situation in Pakistan."

Musharraf's Western allies have supported his leadership as a stabilizing force because of his control of the powerful military and his willingness to take on Islamic extremists. But he is now a divisive figure among his countrymen, unlikely to achieve national reconciliation.

He has largely alienated mainstream secular parties, whose support he needs to fight militancy. And with violence skyrocketing, he has lost the confidence of the public.

His promises to restore democracy have little currency, particularly after he declared a state of emergency this fall and purged the Supreme Court when it challenged his dominance. A poll conducted by the International Republican Institute last month found 72 percent of respondents opposed Musharraf's recent re-election to the presidency for a new five-year term.

"He is deadlocked with the political forces, deadlocked with the judiciary and deadlocked with civil society. He is now a huge part of the problem," said analyst Shafqat Mahmood , who once served as a Bhutto spokesman.

Yet Musharraf has his supporters.

Many Pakistanis empathize with his moderate view of Islam - a counterpoint to the fundamentalism espoused by militants. Inflation has hit Pakistanis hard, but his government has pushed forward development projects and presided over strong economic growth.

Some rural dwellers say banditry in the countryside has been suppressed during his rule. Some Pakistanis also admire his bravery in confronting the al- Qaida militants who twice came close to killing him. And there is respect for his follow through on one major promise, giving up direct command of the army.

Yet after years of military rule and political meddling by Pakistan's secretive intelligence agencies, people instinctively disbelieve the government, whether on its promises to hold free and fair elections or over its explanations over how Bhutto was killed and by whom.

Above all, the vast majority of Pakistanis reject Musharraf's assertions that his alliance with the Bush administration is good for Pakistan. Most believe the government has only made things worse by launching offensives against Taliban and al- Qaida militants along the Afghan border, inviting a blizzard of retaliatory suicide attacks on security forces, their families and political leaders.

"After the killing of Benazir Bhutto, the future of Pakistan is in danger," said Baba Ali Asghar , a 60-year-old shop owner who closed his store in the central city of Multan because of the street violence following Bhutto's death.

"We beg President Pervez Musharraf to resign and give someone else the chance to run the government," he said. "It is the only solution."

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