WASHINGTON – The assassination Thursday of Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto dealt a fresh blow to Bush administration’s efforts to promote a restoration of democracy in Pakistan and counter growing violence by Islamic extremists allied with al-Qaida and the Taliban.

In October the administration encouraged Bhutto to return home after years in exile and to reach a power-sharing agreement with President Pervez Musharraf.

President Bush then pressed Musharraf to resign as chief of army staff and to lift a state of emergency, and he did both earlier this month.

Musharraf, who seized power in an October 1999 military coup has failed to prevent Islamic radicals allied with al-Qaida and the Taliban from expanding their control of northwestern areas of Pakistan and staging attacks in other parts of the country.

The United States saw a restoration of civilian democratic rule as the best way of containing the continually growing threat.

Although negotiations between Musharraf and Bhutto failed, the administration saw Bhutto and her secular Pakistan People’s Party as offering the best hope for winning Jan. 8 parliamentary elections and restoring civilian rule.

President Bush, who is vacationing at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, issued a terse statement urging Pakistanis “to honor Benazir Bhutto’s memory by continuing with the democratic process for which she so bravely gave her life.”

Some experts, however, said Bhutto’s slaying after a campaign rally in the city of Rawalpindi may force Musharraf to postpone the polls.

Bush said that Bhutto, a former prime minister who escaped an assassination by a suicide bomber hours after she returned home on Oct. 18, knew that she had “put her life at risk.”

“The United States strongly condemns this cowardly act by murderous extremists who are trying to undermine Pakistan’s democracy. Those who committed this crime must be brought to justice,” Bush said.

(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.


GRAPHICS (from MCT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20071227 Bhutto profile, 20071227 Bhutto assassination, 20071227 Pakistan attack

ARCHIVE ILLUSTRATION on MCT Direct (from MCT Illustration Bank, 202-383-6064): Benazir Bhutto

PHOTOS (from MCT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): BHUTTO

AP-NY-12-27-07 1306EST

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