Saturday, December 29, 2007

The accusation escalation

On Friday the government of Pakistan was holding out a transcript of an intercepted telephone conversation between Baitullah Mehsud, head of Tehrik-i-Taliban, an alleged ally of al-Qaeda, as evidence supporting the Musharraf government's claim that al-Qaeda was responsible for the assassination of Benazir Bhutto.
“We have an intercept from this morning in which he congratulated his people for carrying out this act,” Brig. Javed Iqbal Cheema, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry, said in a briefing to reporters.

“We have irrefutable evidence that Al Qaeda and its networks are trying to destabilize the government,” he added. “They have been systematically attacking our government, and now a political icon.” Ms. Bhutto, he said, was on the hit list of Al Qaeda and other terrorists.

Which left anybody with even a minor grasp on reality unimpressed.

Then today, Mehsud comes partially out of the woodwork with a statement denying responsibility.

Alleged Al-Qaeda leader Baitullah Mehsud denied any involvement in Benazir Bhutto's death after the Pakistan government blamed him for the killing, his spokesman told AFP on Saturday.

"He had no involvement in this attack," spokesman Maulana Omar said in a telephone call. "This is a conspiracy of the government, army and intelligence agencies."

The spokesman said he was calling from Pakistan's Waziristan area, a lawless tribal region where Pakistani government forces have been battling Islamist militants. "It is against tribal tradition and custom to attack a woman," Omar said.

The twist here is that militant groups are normally quick to claim responsibility for acts like assassinations since it elevates them among others of their ilk. Mehsud is already wanted by the Musharraf government. He would have little to lose by taking responsibility for killing Bhutto.

The comment by Omar that it is against tribal tradition and custom to attack a woman doesn't hold much water. Such groups have deviated from that tribal custom in the past.

The actual cause of death is now in dispute. The version issued by the Pakistani government:

Saying he wanted to dispel erroneous reports that Ms. Bhutto had died from gunfire, Brigadier Cheema gave an exhaustive description of the episode and showed a video on which Ms. Bhutto could be seen waving at the crowd from the sunroof of her car as she left a political rally in Rawalpindi. But the camera lost focus in the pandemonium after it recorded the sound of three gunshots.

Ms. Bhutto tried to duck down into the car just as the suicide bomber detonated his explosives, and the force of the blast caused her to strike her head, he said. “One of the levers of the sunroof hit her on the right side, which caused a fracture, and that is what caused her death,” Brigadier Cheema said. He said shrapnel from the blast hit the left side of the car, but her injury was on the right side of her head. The lever on the car showed traces of blood, he said.

“There was no bullet that hit Mohtarma Bhutto, there was no splinter that hit Mohtarma Bhutto, and there was no pellet that hit her,” he said, referring to Ms. Bhutto with a term of respect. It remained unclear if the suicide bomber had fired the shots or if a second person had, he said.

I suppose there were several places in the car that showed traces of blood. As for the location of the injury, that is now in dispute.

Benazir Bhutto was shot in the head, a close aide who prepared her body for burial said on Saturday, dismissing as "ludicrous" a government theory that she died after hitting her head on a sunroof during the suicide attack.


"She has a bullet wound at the back of her head on the left side. It came out the other. That was a very large wound, and she bled profusely through that," said Ms. Rehman, who suffered a severe whiplash and leg injuries as the blast threw her out of her car.

"She was even bleeding while we were bathing her for the burial," she added. "The government is now trying to say she concussed herself, which is ludicrous. It is really dangerous nonsense."

The problem now is the investigation. Musharraf has initiated two investigations: one judicial and the other by the intelligence service. The hitch, of course, is that under Musharraf's military dictatorship judges had to swear loyalty to Musharraf or be removed from the bench. The intelligence service investigation is easily dismissed before it even starts. Pakistani intelligence, in the eyes of most of the world, is one of the suspects.

There is no chance for a credible investigation by the Pakistani government under Musharraf. Unless the international community offers to step in, and Pakistan allows it, Benzir Bhutto's assassination will be mired in mystery and endless accusations.

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