CRAWFORD, Texas (Reuters) - President George W. Bush condemned the assassination of Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto on Thursday and the United States urged Pakistan, a key ally in its war against terrorism, to proceed with elections planned for January 8.
“The United States strongly condemns this cowardly act by murderous extremists who are trying to undermine Pakistan’s democracy,” Bush told reporters on the outskirts of his Texas ranch. “Those who committed this crime must be brought to justice.”
U.S. officials called for Pakistan to go ahead with the elections, despite what appeared to be a huge blow to Washington’s efforts to promote a democratic transition after eight years of military rule by President Pervez Musharraf.
“I do think that 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,” State Department spokesman Tom Casey said.
Former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Bhutto’s old political rival, said his party would boycott the election.
Bush called Musharraf to offer condolences after the Bhutto assassination.
The United States has been careful to show support for Musharraf even after he imposed emergency rule, which he lifted earlier this month after stepping down as army chief.
After the September 11 attacks Washington enlisted the help of the nuclear-armed state in the hunt for al Qaeda and Taliban extremists in the remote border region with Afghanistan. Pakistan has received about $10 billion in U.S. funding since 2001.
“Pakistan has been an ally in the war on terror,” White House spokesman Scott Stanzel said. “President Musharraf himself has faced numerous assassination attempts.”
Bush praised Bhutto’s courage in returning to Pakistan in October to participate in elections.
“She knew that her return to Pakistan earlier this year put her life at risk,” he said. “Yet she refused to allow assassins to dictate the course of her country.”
The United States was instrumental in Bhutto’s return to Pakistan, working to convince Musharraf to give up his role as military chief and accept elections and a power-sharing arrangement with Bhutto, a former prime minister.
The Western-educated Bhutto was seen as a moderate who would support the U.S. campaign against al Qaeda and Taliban extremists believed to have taken refuge along Pakistan’s lawless frontier with Afghanistan.
The death of Bhutto, 54, in a gun and bomb attack after a rally in the city of Rawalpindi came less than two weeks before an election she hoped to win.
It was the second attack against her since she returned from exile. A suicide bomber targeted Bhutto’s motorcade in October as she made her way home through crowds of supporters and killed 139 people.
U.S. officials said it was too early to determine who was behind the assassination.
The United States offered the FBI’s assistance in investigating the attack but had not yet received a request, agency spokesman Stephen Kodak said.
“There are a number of extremist groups within Pakistan that could have carried out the attack,” a U.S. official said on condition of anonymity. “Al Qaeda has got to be one of the groups at the top of the list.”
Bhutto’s relationship with Musharraf frayed after her return to Pakistan but the United States continued to support her as a central figure in its efforts to promote a democratic transition in the country.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said of Bhutto: “I knew her as a woman of great courage and had been impressed by her dedication and commitment to democracy and the future of Pakistan itself.”
The United States had pressured Musharraf to release Bhutto from house arrest imposed to prevent her from leading a protest, and sent Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte to try to revive a political deal between Bhutto and Musharraf in November.
Rick Barton, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the attack underscored the weakness of Musharraf and the military, and “the danger of growing extremism in the country and the lack of any real authority.”
Additional reporting by Deborah Charles, Paul Eckert and Randall Mikkelsen; Editing by David Alexander, Peter Cooney and Bill Trott