RAWALPINDI, Pakistan – The assassination of Benazir Bhutto, the charismatic opposition leader who had promised to restore democracy in Pakistan, set off a nationwide wave of grief and fury and raised the specter of violent unrest that could threaten the government of U.S.-backed President Pervez Musharraf.

At least 20 other people died in Thursday’s assault just outside the main gates of a Rawalpindi park where Pakistan’s first prime minister was assassinated in 1951. Bhutto’s white SUV was first hit by close-range gunfire, then rocked by a powerful explosion set off by a suicide attacker.

There were conflicting reports whether there were one or two attackers, but several witnesses said they saw a gunman fire shots at Bhutto and then blow himself up. No one immediately claimed responsibility for the assassination, but Islamic extremists had repeatedly threatened the progressive-minded former prime minister.

Musharraf called on his compatriots to remain calm; demonstrators, however, aimed their rage at the former general, whom Bhutto often called a dictator. “Musharraf is a dog!” protesters shouted at the hospital where Bhutto died. “Killer, killer!” others chanted. Nine people were reported killed in rioting overnight.

The assassination, in the city that is the headquarters of the Pakistani military, raised fears that Musharraf would once again assume sweeping powers to keep order. On Nov. 3, the government declared a state of emergency, akin to martial law, and used broad police powers to round up thousands of opponents. Musharraf, a key U.S. ally in the “war on terror,” ended the emergency rule Dec. 15.

Within hours of her death, Bhutto’s body, placed in a plain wooden coffin, was put aboard a flight for her hometown, the southern city of Larkana. Officials said the funeral could be held as early as Friday, in keeping with Muslim tradition that calls for a swift burial.

She was to be buried in the same mausoleum as her father, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, who was hanged in 1979 by the military leader who had overthrown him. Days after her return to Pakistan in October, Bhutto had visited her father’s grave to pay homage, scattering rose petals on the white-marble tomb.

In some ways, hers was a death foretold. The 54-year-old Bhutto had spoken often about the prospect of a violent end at the hands of Islamic extremists or other assailants. She did so again just before the attack that killed her.

“I risked my life and came here because I believe our country is in danger,” Bhutto told a flag-waving crowd of supporters at Thursday’s rally, just 12 days before general elections were scheduled to take place.

Bhutto had said she believed that rogue elements in the government had conspired in a previous assassination attempt in October. She escaped injury in that massive bombing, in which a suicide attacker struck her convoy in Karachi, killing more than 150 people.

From the beginning, security fears had shadowed Bhutto’s election campaign. Despite repeated warnings that the former prime minister could be targeted, and Bhutto’s bitter complaints about the lack of security provided by the government, she had insisted on her right to appear at the big open-air rallies that are the mainstay of Pakistani politics.

Those entering the leafy, gated park where Bhutto’s last rally was held encountered some security barriers. Everyone had to pass through metal detectors and undergo a body search, with female police officers frisking the women.

But the police presence was relatively light; Bhutto’s private security guards hustled her on and off the stage and kept watch over the crowd, cradling automatic weapons. And once she left the rally grounds, there was no police escort, only Bhutto’s own force of volunteer guards surrounding her car, putting their bodies between her and any attacker.

The assassination represents a blow to the Bush administration, which has been Musharraf’s chief backer. U.S. officials had hoped Musharraf and the Western-educated Bhutto would reach a detente that would stabilize the nuclear-armed country and intensify the effort against Islamic fundamentalists hiding in the nation’s border regions.

At his ranch near Crawford, Texas, President Bush was told of the assassination during his morning intelligence briefing. “The United States strongly condemns this cowardly act by murderous extremists who are trying to undermine Pakistan’s democracy,” he said, reading a statement.

Thursday’s carefully choreographed assault cut Bhutto down without mercy. Aides said they believed the bullet wounds Bhutto initially suffered would likely have been fatal even without the subsequent fiery blast.

“I saw the flash, heard the boom, and there were people with their limbs missing, all of them on the ground,” said Ghulam Mustafa, who was a short distance away when the attack took place. The ground was littered with charred debris, scattered shoes and scraps of clothing, soaked in blood.

Screaming, weeping supporters converged on Rawalpindi General Hospital, where Bhutto was rushed after the attack.

Doctors performed emergency surgery, but Bhutto went into cardiac arrest and her heart could not be restarted, said Dr. Abbas Hayat, head of the hospital’s pathology department.

The hospital’s plate-glass front doors were shattered by the crush of people trying to enter the building. They flooded into the foyer and up the stairs leading to the operating rooms, forcing attendants to muscle their way through the crowd bearing stretchers that carried the wounded. Some beat their chests and howled with grief.

“She has expired, this dear, dear woman, and I cannot think now what will happen to our country,” said Sardar Saleem, a former senator who had been seated on the dais with Bhutto at the rally.

The country was immediately put on a heightened state of alert after the assassination. Police and paramilitary troops poured into the streets, and long into the night, helicopters hovered over Rawalpindi and the adjoining capital, Islamabad. But police generally gave protesters a wide berth, apparently fearful of further inflaming them.

In Rawalpindi and half a dozen other cities, furious supporters set tires ablaze and tore down posters of government-backed candidates, throwing them into the flames. Musharraf, who recently stepped down as military chief to become civilian president, ordered three days of mourning.

“This is the work of those terrorists with whom we are engaged in war,” the Pakistani leader said in a nationally televised speech. “I have been saying that the nation faces the greatest threats from these terrorists. … We will not rest until we eliminate these terrorists and root them out.”

Bhutto’s death leaves a leadership void within her Pakistan People’s Party, the country’s largest political bloc. Within the party, she was an autocratic figure, sidelining opponents and grooming no successor. She used the title “Chairperson For Life.”

She was a child of privilege, born into a wealthy landowning clan, educated at Harvard and Oxford. But she knew pain and privation as well, spending years in squalid jails or in exile before making her first triumphal return to Pakistan in 1986, seven years after her father was executed. She was twice elected prime minister, and twice removed on charges of incompetence and corruption.

Bhutto could be cold and imperious, but her charisma was undeniable. At Thursday’s rally, followers waited excitedly for a glimpse of her, pressing themselves close to the security fence that separated her from the crowd.

The rally, meant to build support for Bhutto’s party in advance of the Jan. 8 elections, was her first public appearance in Rawalpindi since she returned to Pakistan. At the time, she had planned a rally here, but the government canceled it, citing the threat of a suicide attack, and briefly placed Bhutto under house arrest when she tried to go ahead anyway.

Bhutto’s death will inevitably complicate the already fraught internal politics of the country. The first question was whether January’s parliamentary elections would go forward. Some opponents said they would boycott the elections and the government was considering delaying the vote.

The elections were expected to be a three-way contest among Bhutto’s party; that of Nawaz Sharif, another former prime minister and opposition leader; and that of Musharraf.

No party had been expected to score a clear triumph; most political observers saw the elections resulting in some sort of power-sharing agreement between Bhutto and Musharraf, with her as prime minister.

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