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World News

Bhutto slaying spawns conspiracy theories galore

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - In Pakistan’s Kafkaesque world, conspiracy theories are given far more credence than the official accounts of Benazir Bhutto’s assassination.

“Our history is full of such assassinations and all have been done by invisible hands, agencies,” said Aqueel-ur-Rehman, manager of a filling station in Peshawar.

“Thinking about anybody else would be foolish.”

President Pervez Musharraf’s government has made al Qaeda its prime suspect in the killing of an opposition leader who stood a real chance of becoming prime minister for a third time after a January 8 election, now likely to be delayed.

Al Qaeda and its allies among Pakistani jihadi groups certainly wanted Bhutto dead.

Like Musharraf, she was seen as a U.S. ally and was one of the strongest moderate voices seeking to wrest back influence in the Islamic world from Osama bin Laden and his ilk.

Even so, ordinary Pakistanis are more willing to believe she was killed by political enemies close to Musharraf, rogue elements in the establishment, intelligence agencies, and even the United States though it had backed her return from exile.

SMOKESCREEN

The government says Bhutto died when she cracked her skull on a sunroof handle during a gun and suicide bomb attack last Thursday, though television pictures show her hair and veil lifting as a clean-shaven gunman nears her car and fires.

The government account provoked widespread disbelief.

Shireen Mazari, the head of an Islamabad think-tank, regarded the Interior Ministry’s explanation as an “extreme absurdity”.

“The television showed what was happening. Everything was in black and white, I don’t know what they were trying to do,” said Mazari, director-general of the Institute of Strategic Studies.

Most people wrote off the official version as a clumsy attempt to divert attention from security lapses.

“People believe that the lapses were deliberate so that the assassins could get close to her and kill her,” said Hamid Gul, a retired general who served as head of the military’s Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) during Bhutto’s first government.

Gul’s own name surfaced among theorists’ lists of possible plotters against Bhutto because of a past sympathy with Islamist causes, but he described that as “bunkum”.

He also regarded the government assertion that al Qaeda was involved as a smokescreen orchestrated by the United States.

He believed more likely suspects were people close to Musharraf whose own positions depended on his holding onto power.

“I don’t think for a moment that Pervez Musharraf could have been involved in it himself,” said Gul, “But there are other cohorts of his, people who are around him.”

Before she returned from eight years of self-exile two months ago, Bhutto wrote to Musharraf naming four individuals who should be investigated if anything happened to her.

They were believed to include a senior member of the Chaudhrys, a political family who climbed the ladder to power by supporting Musharraf, and Intelligence Bureau chief Ijaz Shah.

PHANTOMS

Alternatively, Gul said the assassination could have been conducted by outside powers interested in destabilizing Pakistan to create a reason for seizing the country’s nuclear weapons.

That may seem far-fetched to foreigners, but not to many Pakistanis convinced the world does not want to see a Muslim country with nuclear weapons.

A conflicted relationship with the United States, perennial fear of India, and the perceived omnipotence of Pakistan’s own security agencies have conjured phantoms in the national psyche.

The ease with which conspiracy theories gain traction reflect the powerlessness people feel in a country riven by religious, ethnic and ideological divides, and where tension between the army and civilians led to repeated crises since it was formed in 1947.

Pakistan’s first prime minister, Liaquat Ali Khan, was gunned down in 1951. His assassination remains shrouded in mystery.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who was Benazir’s father and Pakistan’s first popularly elected prime minister, was hanged in 1979 after being overthrown by General Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq.

Zia, who helped the United States run a covert war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, perished in an unexplained air crash in 1988.

“The United States, dictatorship and militants have turned this country into a hell,” lamented Ismat Shahjahan, a Pakistani working for a foreign aid organization in Islamabad.

Additional reporting by Kamran Haider; Editing by Jerry Norton

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