By Randall Mikkelsen
WASHINGTON Dec 27 Al Qaeda is the chief
suspect in the murder of Pakistani opposition leader Benazir
Bhutto, standing to gain by preserving its remote stronghold,
undermining President Pervez Musharraf and destabilizing the
country, U.S. government and private analysts said.
The militant group, which has rebuilt its command structure
on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, was blamed for a previous
attempt on Bhutto and it has denounced her as an instrument of
U.S. policy in Pakistan.
Bush administration officials said it was too early to
identify a clear suspect in Thursday's assassination.
But one U.S. official said: "There are a number of
extremist groups within Pakistan that could have carried out
the attack. ... Al Qaeda has got to be one of the groups at the
top of this list."
Al Qaeda's Taliban ally, which has publicly threatened
Bhutto, was another potential suspect, said the official, who
spoke on condition of anonymity.
One private analyst said al Qaeda supporters in Pakistan's
security services may have also played a role, but it was
unlikely Musharraf himself was involved.
Killing Bhutto undermines Musharraf, viewed by the United
States as an essential ally against terrorism, by eliminating
the prospect of a power-sharing agreement between the two that
could shore up his deteriorating political standing and
stabilize the country, the analysts said.
That in turn reduces chances Musharraf can revive efforts
to drive al Qaeda and the Taliban out of the remote Waziristan
tribal areas. It also fans popular suspicions against Musharraf
and sows general confusion.
"Their (al Qaeda's) motivation for doing this is entirely
clear," said David Gartenstein-Ross of the Foundation for
Defense of Democracies. "They have the most to gain."
Bhutto was assassinated in a suicide bombing after an
election rally in the city of Rawalpindi, ahead of Jan. 8
national elections meant to return Pakistan to a civilian-led
Her death follows a failed assassination attempt in October
as she returned from exile to Pakistan. She blamed that attempt
on four groups including al Qaeda and the Taliban.
A shadowy alliance of groups could also have been at work
on Thursday, said Frederic Grare, a South Asia expert at the
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
AL QAEDA DENOUNCES
Al Qaeda's second in command, Ayman al-Zawahri, this month
denounced Bhutto's return as a U.S.-orchestrated maneuver.
"Everything that is going on in Pakistan, from the
arrangement for the return of Benazir to the declaration of the
state of emergency ... to repressive measures, is a desperate
American attempt to remedy the deteriorating situation in
Afghanistan and Pakistan," Zawahri said in an interview with al
Qaeda's media arm.
Shortly before Bhutto's return in October, Taliban
commander Haji Omar pledged to attack her.
Pakistan's investigation of the killing will be a major
test of Musharraf's credibility, said P.J. Crowley, a former
National Security Council official.
In particular, he said, the probe must make a thorough
effort to identify any elements in the government who may be
complicit in the attack.
The United States offered FBI assistance in investigating
Bhutto's assassination, but Pakistan has not yet made a
request, FBI spokesman Stephen Kodak said.
Bhutto, in an October letter to an acquaintance read on CNN
on Thursday, said she would hold Musharraf responsible if she
were killed, for a failure to authorize adequate security.
Rawalpindi, where Bhutto was killed, is a garrison town
where Pakistan's army has its strongest grip, said RAND Corp
analyst Christine Fair. "There will be those who hold him
accountable even if he and his services are innocent."
U.S. State Department spokesman Tom Casey said: "It is
clear that whoever is responsible is someone who opposes
peaceful, democratic development and change in Pakistan."
(Additional reporting by Paul Eckert, editing by Doina