WASHINGTON — The Bush administration scrambled Thursday with the implications of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto's assassination after investing significant diplomatic capital in promoting reconciliation between her and President Pervez Musharraf.
President Bush, speaking briefly to reporters at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, urged that her killing not derail nascent efforts to restore democratic rule ahead of parliamentary elections set for Jan. 8. And he demanded that those responsible for the killing be brought to justice.
"The United States strongly condemns this cowardly act by murderous extremists who are trying to undermine Pakistan's democracy," said Bush, who looked tense and took no questions. He expressed his deepest condolences to Bhutto's family and to the families of others slain in the attack and to all the people of Pakistan.
FBI and Homeland Security officials sent a bulletin late Thursday to U.S. law enforcement agencies citing Islamist Web sites as saying al-Qaida had claimed responsibility for the attack and that the group's No. 2 leader, Ayman al-Zawahri, had planned it.
The intelligence community is using all of its resources to determine who was behind the Bhutto assassination, Director of National Intelligence spokesman Ross Feinstein said. But he added, "We're in no position right now to confirm who may have been responsible for the attack."
U.S. officials struggled with the immense policy implications of the assassination on relations with a nuclear-armed country that has received billions of dollars in American financial assistance and is an ally in the war on terrorism. White House spokesman Scott Stanzel said Bush spoke briefly by phone with Musharraf.
'Thorough investigation' needed
Bhutto died Thursday in a suicide attack that also killed at least 20 others at a campaign rally in Rawalpindi.
Stanzel said it was too soon to say who was responsible. "I'm aware that al-Qaida may have claimed responsibility," he said.
Stanzel said an open review of the assassination was crucial for the long-term prospects of democracy in Pakistan. He would not get specific about what role, if any, the United States would play but stressed that the United States considers Pakistan a close ally.
In his comments, Bush said asked that Pakistanis honor Bhutto's memory "by continuing with the democratic process for which she so bravely gave her life."
At the State Department, deputy spokesman Tom Casey said that meant not postponing the Jan. 8 elections and not re-imposing emergency rule, which Musharraf declared in the fall and rescinded only earlier this month.
"It would be a victory for no one but the extremists responsible for this attack to have some kind of postponement or a delay directly related to it in the democratic process," Casey told reporters. "We certainly would not think it appropriate to have any kind of return to emergency rule or other kinds of measures taken in response to this."
The United States had been at the forefront of foreign powers trying to arrange reconciliation between Bhutto and Musharraf, who under heavy U.S. pressure resigned as army chief and earlier this month lifted a state of emergency, in the hope it would put Pakistan back on the road to democracy. Bhutto's return to the country after years in exile and the ability of her party to contest free and fair elections had been a cornerstone of Bush's policy in Pakistan, where U.S. officials had watched Musharraf's growing authoritarianism with increasing unease.
Al-Qaida, Taliban concerns
Those concerns were compounded by the rising threat from al-Qaida and Taliban extremists, particularly in Pakistan's largely ungoverned tribal areas bordering Afghanistan despite the fact that Washington had pumped nearly $10 billion in aid into the country since Musharraf became an indispensable counterterrorism ally after Sept. 11, 2001.
Irritated by the situation, Congress last week imposed new restrictions on U.S. assistance to Pakistan, including tying $50 million in military aid to State Department assurances that the country is making "concerted efforts" to prevent terrorists from operating inside its borders.
In his comments in Crawford, Bush said, "Mrs. Bhutto served her nation twice as prime minister and she knew that her return to Pakistan earlier this year put her life at risk, yet she refused to allow assassins to dictate the course of her country."
"We stand with the people of Pakistan in their struggle against the forces of terror and extremism. We urge them to honor Benazir Bhutto's memory by continuing with the democratic process for which she so bravely gave her life," he said.
Other U.S. officials and presidential candidates also issued statements expressing shock at Bhutto's assassination.
Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden of Delaware, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said, "I am convinced Ms. Bhutto would have won free and fair elections next week. The fact that she was by far Pakistan's most popular leader underscores the fact that there is a vast, moderate majority in Pakistan that must have a clear voice in the system."
"This is a critical moment for Pakistan, for the region, and for the community of nations as we encourage democracy and stability in Pakistan," said Sen. Richard Lugar, leading Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee.
Where the $10 billion has gone
Of the $10 billion given to Pakistan since 2001:
- $2.4 billion is in economic assistance — education reform, teacher training, schools, scholarships, science and technology, governance programs, etc.;
- $1.9 billion is in security assistance to fight terrorism. This money has gone to purchase tactical radios, missiles, helicopters, night-vision goggles, counter-insurgency training;
- $5.3 billion is in Coalition Support Funds to reimburse Pakistan for expenses related to fighting terrorism.
Also, the Bush administration in March announced a $750 million, five-year economic and education development strategy for Pakistan's tribal region on the border with Afghanistan.
NBC News contributed to this report.