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Bhutto's death rocks Pakistan

The assassination of the former prime minister raises questions about the Musharraf government's security measures.

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The assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto by a suicide bomber Thursday threatens to bring to a halt Pakistan's stuttering steps toward democracy.

It is the starkest evidence yet that the forces aligned against law and order, once contained to the remote border region with Afghanistan, are now spilling into the heart of Pakistan, disrupting the country's ability to function.

The death of Ms. Bhutto, one of Pakistan's most beloved leaders and head of its largest political party, is an emotional event for many. Rioting broke out in several cities late Thursday night. The unrest could lead to the declaration of martial law, experts say, and the postponement of parliamentary elections scheduled for Jan. 8, 2008.

It is the sort of instability that Western nations had sought to avoid by persuading President Pervez Musharraf to allow Bhutto back into the country – hoping her vows to tackle terrorism would help in the fight against Taliban militants and put Pakistan on a more moderate path. Now, they appear to have made her a target. Her death marks a moment of decision for Pakistan's leaders and lays bare the terrorists' capabilities.

"Her death in such a manner – when the government had taken responsibility for her security – tells a lot about the situation in Pakistan," says Hassan Abbas, a Pakistan expert at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. "What is evident is a complete lack of command and control."

It brings a close to a year drawn in persistent, violent turmoil. Details of Bhutto's death – the Muslim world's first female prime minister – were not yet confirmed at press time, but reports suggest she was shot before a suicide bomber blew himself up. The attack took place minutes after she had finished her address at a large rally in the garrison city of Rawalpindi, near the capital, Islamabad.

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