WASHINGTON, Dec. 27 (UPI) -- Suspects in the assassination of Pakistan's Benazir Bhutto number in the tens of thousands. Some 800 Pakistanis have been killed by suicide bombers in the past year. Bhutto had a close brush with death Oct. 18, a few hours after returning from eight years of self-imposed exile in Dubai and London. The suicide bomber killed more than 140 people and injured 350, some a few feet from where she was sitting in a large vehicle.
Bhutto knew of at least three extremist leaders who had ordered her assassination. She had received a letter from someone who claimed to be a friend of Osama Bin Laden that said she would be slaughtered like a goat.
Two of Pakistan's four provinces -- Baluchistan and the North-West Frontier province -- are governed by a coalition of six politico-religious extremist parties (known as MMA) whose leaders are admirers of Osama Bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Omar. Any number of their adherents would volunteer for a suicide mission against Bhutto. Democracy, as Pakistani extremists see it, is a Western plot to weaken Islam with permissive behavior.
In the past year the Taliban and al-Qaida have recovered their privileged sanctuaries in the FATAs -- the Federally Administered Tribal Areas -- that straddle the unmarked 1,300-mile border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. In two of the seven FATAs, North and South Waziristan, the Pakistani army in the past two years sustained more than 1,000 killed and 3,000 injured fighting Taliban guerrillas and their al-Qaida allies -- only to be fought to a standstill.
The Taliban spread word among Pakistani troops that the orders to kill the insurgents had come from the White House and that President Musharraf was simply carrying out the wishes of the American imperialists. As a result, entire units caught in Taliban ambushes surrendered their weapons without a fight.
Bhutto's father, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, was executed by hanging by the former military dictator Gen. Zia ul-Haq. Two of her brothers were also assassinated.
Some speculative stories are suggesting Musharraf himself might have ordered Bhutto's assassination, a totally ludicrous line of speculation. He clearly was fearful of her return, the modalities of which he personally negotiated with her in a secret meeting in Abu Dhabi late last summer. Bin Laden himself ordered Pakistanis to kill Musharraf, as he was a U.S. puppet under President Bush's orders. And Musharraf himself so far has survived nine assassination plots, including two attempts caught live by television cameras.
Last summer, as Musharraf was taking off from Islamabad, an anti-aircraft gun fired a round at his plane but missed.
Pakistan's all-powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency is bound to be fingered -- not its leadership, but veterans of a service that nurtured and supported the creation of the Taliban in Afghanistan and its gradual conquest of the country between 1992 and 1996. Gen. Hamid Gul, a former ISI chief and now "strategic adviser" to the MMA coalition, was a sworn enemy of Bhutto.
Bhutto's rival in the elections originally scheduled for Jan. 8 is Nawaz Sharif, who was forced into exile in 1999 after he tried to crash Army Chief of Staff Musharraf's aircraft returning from a conference in Sri Lanka. Sharif's men kept the plane circling Karachi airport while drums were placed along the main runway. Fuel in Musharraf's plane was down to 10 minutes when his crew realized what was happening on the ground. Musharraf then got on the radio and ordered the general waiting to greet him to instantly remove the drums as fuel was too low to make it over to the nearest air force base.
No sooner on the ground than Musharraf's coup was under way with the support of the army's 10 corps commanders. Sharif was arrested and later agreed to go into exile in Saudi Arabia -- and stay out of Pakistan for 10 years.
Sharif is now back, three years short of the agreed exile period, and will presumably be the leading candidate for prime minister when elections are held. The original date of Jan. 8 will now be postponed.
For half of its 60-year, blood-soaked history, Pakistan has been under military dictatorship. Bhutto is the fourth Pakistani leader to have met a violent end. Her father was the first to say publicly that Pakistan needed nuclear weapons. That came in 1971, after Pakistan had lost half its country, known as East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), to a military offensive ordered by Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who was assassinated in 1984.
Bhutto was executed by Gen. Zia ul-Haq, who seized power in 1977. The two leaders disagreed on how the country should be run. Zia himself was killed in a mysterious plane crash in 1988.