The United States scrambled Thursday to deal with the assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto's after having invested significant diplomatic capital in promoting reconciliation between her and President Pervez Musharraf.
President George W. Bush, speaking briefly to reporters at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, urged that her murder not derail nascent efforts to restore democratic rule ahead of parliamentary elections set for next month. 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.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice echoed those comments, calling on Pakistanis to remain calm.
"The deadly results of this attack will no doubt test the will and patience of the people of Pakistan," Rice said in a statement. "We urge the Pakistani people, political leaders, and civil society to maintain calm and to work together to build a more moderate, peaceful, and democratic future."
Bush's appearance came as U.S. officials struggled with the implications of the assassination on relations with a nuclear-armed country that has received billions of dollars in American financial assistance and is a key ally in fighting terrorism. White House spokesman Scott Stanzel said Bush spoke briefly by phone with Musharraf but he had no details.
Bhutto was shot and killed by an attacker who then blew himself up. At least 20 others also died at a campaign rally in Rawalpindi. She served twice as Pakistan's prime minister between 1988 and 1996. She had returned to Pakistan from an eight-year exile Oct. 18. Her homecoming parade in Karachi was also targeted by a suicide attacker, killing more than 140 people.
Stanzel said it was too soon to say who was responsible.
"I'm aware that al-Qaida may have claimed responsibility," Stanzel said. "I'm aware of news reports of that. But I don't have any specifics for you on that." He did say, "Whoever perpetrated this attack is an enemy of democracy and has used a tactic that al-Qaida is very familiar with, and that is suicide bombing and the taking of innocent life to try to disrupt the democratic process."
The White House expects an open review of the assassination. Stanzel said that 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," he 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.
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 (euro6.8 billion) in aid into the country since Musharraf became an indispensable counterterrorism ally after Sept. 11, 2001.
Said Sen. Richard Lugar, the top Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, "This is a critical moment for Pakistan, for the region, and for the community of nations as we encourage democracy and stability in Pakistan."
Irritated by the situation, Congress last week imposed new restrictions on U.S. assistance to Pakistan, including tying $50 million (euro34.4 million) in military aid to State Department assurances that the country is making "concerted efforts" to prevent terrorists from operating inside its borders.
Rep. Tom Lantos, Democratic chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said the assassination should spur a recommitment of U.S. support for Pakistan's democracy.
"This atrocious attack should compel the United States to renew our commitment to the people of Pakistan and to the voices of moderation," he said. "Although one of those voices has been prematurely silenced today, it is up to all of us to make sure that those who have perpetrated this hideous act are brought to justice, and that those who continue to spew the venomous, hate-filled rhetoric of extremism are vanquished."
Other U.S. officials and presidential candidates also issued statements expressing shock at Bhutto's assassination. Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, 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."
Associated Press reporters Charles Babington and Eileen Sullivan in Washington and Ben Feller in Crawford, Texas contributed to this story.