The first shot has already been fired in the battle that Islamists have vowed to wage against the Washington-inspired and brokered attempt at regime change in Pakistan. It came in the form of twin bomb blasts aimed at Benazir Bhutto, the lynchpin in US machinations, within hours of her arrival in Karachi after years in exile.
The bombs narrowly missed Bhutto but killed up to 150 and injured hundreds of the rapturous supporters who thronged the Karachi streets to greet her. The windshield of her vehicle wasshattered and members of her entourage on the roof of the vehicle were injured. A car that was part of her convoy was destroyed.
The attack was hardly a surprise. Militants see Bhutto's return to Pakistani politics as a Western-backed coup against Islamists in Pakistan, akin to the arrival in the Afghan capital, Kabul, of the US-backed Northern Alliance in 2001. Militant leader Baitullah Mehsud had instructed pro-al-Qaeda cells in Karachi to kill her for three major offenses against the Islamists, which he listed as:
- She is the only opposition politician who supported the military attack earlier this year on Islamabad's Lal Masjid (Red Mosque), a hotbed of Islamist radicalism, and she coninues to condemn the Lal Masjid ideologues; - She has stated that she would allow incursions by US forces into Pakistan in pursuit of Osama bin Laden; - She has stated that she would allow the International Atomic Energy Agency to question Dr A Q Khan, the former leading nuclear scientist accused of passing Pakistani nuclear technology to anti-Western countries.
The Western powers were meanwhile cementing their plan for the future of Pakistan and the region. On Thursday, the same day as the bomb attack, Britain's Lord Malloch-Brown, a minister of state at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, arrived in Pakistan to discuss a future pro-Western government in Islamabad. The day before, the British Deputy High Commissioner in Karachi, Hamish Daniel, called on Sindh Governor Ishratul Ebad to ensure that Bhutto's homecoming was accorded full protocol.
Bhutto's return to Pakistan is part of a complex arrangement brokered by Washington and its allies to ensure that a pro-Western government gains power after parliamentary elections in about three months' time. The plan was put in train earlier this month with the promulgation of a National Reconciliation Ordinance, under strong US pressure, by Pakistan's current leader, General Pervez Musharraf. Under the ordinance, all charges against current and former lawmakers who have been accused of corruption (with Bhutto, a twice former prime minister, prominent among them), were dropped. This paved the way for Musharraf's reelection as president and a political settlement with Bhutto which, after Musharraf's giving up his post as chief of the military, would result in a civilian-based, pro-Western consensus government - or so Washington hopes. (See From Washington to war in Waziristan, ATol, Oct 11, 2007)
This is something Pakistan's Islamists are determined to prevent, and sources say that Thursday's bombing was just the first of more such attacks aimed at Western allies in the cities of Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi.
The attack on Bhutto was very well planned and its style was identical to bombings in Iraq. No one has claimed responsibility. The list of suspects is long but Bhutto herself is pointing a finger at Islamists elements within Pakistan's Inter Service Intelligence agency.
I walked past the site of blasts on Karsaz Road five minutes before the explosion. The hour of the attack - just before midnight - was carefully chosen. The crowd of Bhutto supporters had dwindled to not more than 20,000 people, compared to the 100,000-200,000 people who attended a welcoming rally in the afternoon. This allowed the attackers to get close to Bhutto (it is not yet known whether this was a suicide bombing).
Security personnel of Bhutto's Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) were tired after a long day and I saw them resting at the roadside. They were slow to react to the initial small bomb, and so were trapped when the second, powerful, bomb detonated a few minutes later. As is common in Iraq, the first small bomb - hardly big enough to injure anybody - attracted curious onlookers who became the victims of the second bomb.
Coincidentally, Bhutto herself was tired at this time and 10 minutes before had left the roof of her truck (where she was protected by a bullet-proof shield) and had retired inside the vehicle. Only a few party leaders were on the roof, and some were injured by the blast.
With friends like this ...
This is the same Benazir Bhutto who only few years ago was banned from lecturing at European institutions because of her links to corruption scandals. But times have changed, and Bhutto once again has won Western favor.
The deal between Bhutto and Musharraf was so abrupt and unexpected that even Bhutto's PPP leaders were unable to defend it, especially as just a few weeks earlier they had been agitating against Musharraf over his suspension of the chief of the judiciary. Government ministers too were take by surprise, and when Asia Times Online asked Foreign Minister Khurshid Mehmood Kusuri about the deal, he admitted that it had been made under American pressure.
Although the PPP has released expensive advertising for Bhutto's homecoming, feelings against her are running high in some quarters. Anti-Bhutto media have published a list of her, her husband's, and her children's declared assets: they amount to US$1.5 billion, including all Swiss accounts that are frozen because of corruption charges.
Western governments have long shown an affinity for shady characters in their attempts to organize the globe to their liking, though the strategy has seldom paid off in the long term. Thursday's bombings point to enormous problems ahead if the West is to have its way in Pakistan.