Pakistan polls 'impossible' on Jan. 8

(AP)- It appears "impossible" for Pakistan to hold an election on Jan. 8 because of unrest following the killing of Benazir Bhutto, election officials said Tuesday - an announcement that could spark protests by parties demanding that the polls be held on time.

The Election Commission said it would announce a date Wednesday after meeting with Pakistan's political parties. Bhutto's party and other opposition groups have called for the elections to be held as scheduled in hopes that sympathy following her slaying could translate to electoral gains.

The U.S., Britain and other countries view the parliamentary election as key to restoring democracy to Pakistan as it battles the rise of al- Qaida and Taliban militants. But they have indicated they would accept a slight delay if technical reasons dictated one.

Bhutto's killing last week thrust the country into crisis and triggered nationwide riots. Accusations over how exactly she was killed and who was responsible have been coupled with calls for independent international investigation into her assassination.

The violence left at least 44 people killed and mobs caused tens of millions of dollars in damage to homes, government offices and transport facilities, though the crisis has died down since Sunday amid a heavy police and army presence.

Election offices have not escaped the violence, including in Bhutto's home province of Sindh .

"Our offices in 10 districts of Sindh have been burned, the electoral rolls have been burned, the polling schemes, the nomination papers have been burned," commission spokesman Kanwar Dilshad told reporters. "We are in a very tricky situation."

He said it now "looks impossible" to hold the polls on Jan. 8.

Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif , who heads a large opposition party and is a vocal critic of Musharraf , has threatened street protests if the vote was delayed.

"We will agitate," Sharif told The Associated Press on Monday. "We will not accept this postponement."

The United States said a minor delay in elections would be acceptable if all parties agreed.

"The key here is that there be a date certain for elections," said Tom Casey, deputy spokesman for the State Department, said Monday. "We would certainly have concerns about some sort of indefinite postponement of the elections.

Bhutto was killed in a gun and suicide bomb attack that the government blamed on Islamic extremists. But many, pointing to video footage and medical reports, have disputed the Pakistani government's assertion that Bhutto died not from bullet or shrapnel wounds but from injuries sustained while hitting her head on her vehicle's sunroof during Thursday's attack.

Her husband and other opposition leaders have called for an international, independent investigation into the attack and accused Musharraf of failing to adequately protect her. Some close to Bhutto have alleged forces close to the U.S-backed former general may have been involved.

In a statement received Tuesday, the government - which has rejected charges of involvement in Bhutto's death - said it was "committed to a thorough and transparent investigation and will not shy away from receiving assistance from outside, if needed."

U.S. officials, meanwhile, said Washington had provided a steady stream of intelligence to Bhutto about threats against her by Islamic extremists after suicide attackers came close to killing her in a massive blast hours after she had returned from self-imposed exile in October.

"She knew people were trying to assassinate her," an intelligence official told The AP. "We don't hold information back on possible attacks on foreign leaders and foreign countries."

The official added, however, that while the U.S. could share the information, "it's up to (the recipient) how they want to take action."

The officials, who spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter, said the United States had quietly joined calls for Pakistan to allow international experts to join the probe into Bhutto's slaying.

The officials said they expected an announcement soon that investigators from Britain's Scotland Yard would be asked to play a significant role. Any U.S. involvement would be limited and low-key, they said.

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