By Tabassum Zakaria
CRAWFORD, Texas (Reuters) –condemned the assassination of Pakistani opposition leader on Thursday, and the United States urged Islamabad to proceed with elections planned for January 8.
“The United States strongly condemns this cowardly act by murderous extremists who are trying to undermine‘s democracy,” Bush said to reporters on the outskirts of his Texas ranch.
U.S. officials called for Pakistan go ahead with its election, with Bush saying: “We urge them to honor‘s memory by continuing with the democratic process for which she so bravely gave her life.”
“I do think that it would be a victory for no one but the extremists responsible for this attack to have some kind of postponement or delay … in the democratic process,” State Department spokesman Tom Casey said.
The president praised Bhutto’s courage in returning to Pakistan in October to participate in elections aimed at restoring a democratic government after eight years of military rule by.
“She knew that her return to Pakistan earlier this year put her life at risk,” Bush said. “Yet she refused to allow assassins to dictate the course of her country.”
said of Bhutto: “I knew her as a woman of great courage and had been impressed by her dedication and commitment to democracy and the future of Pakistan itself.”
Bhutto, 54, was killed in a gun and bomb attack after a rally in the city of Rawalpindi on Thursday, less than two weeks before a January 8 election she hoped to win.
Bush called Musharraf on Thursday to discuss the situation. The United States has been careful to show support for the leader of the nuclear-armed state, even after he imposed emergency rule, which he lifted earlier this month after stepping down as army chief.
“Pakistan has been an ally in the war on terror. President Musharraf himself has faced numerous assassination attempts,” White House spokesman Scott Stanzel said.
It was the second attack against Bhutto since her return from exile. A suicide bomber targeted her motorcade in October as she made her way home through crowds of supporters, killing 139 people.
The United States was instrumental in Bhutto’s return to Pakistan, working to convince Musharraf to give up his role as military chief and accept elections and a power-sharing arrangement with Bhutto, a former prime minister.
The Western-educated Bhutto was seen as a moderate who would support the U.S. struggle againstand extremists believed to have taken refuge along Pakistan’s lawless frontier with Afghanistan.
Asked about the decision to boycott the January election by Bhutto’s old political rival, former Prime Minister, the State Department’s Casey said, “Individual parties are going to have to make their own choices on whether to participate and how to participate.”
U.S. officials said it was “too early” to determine who was behind the assassination.
The United States offered the‘s assistance in investigating the attack, but had not yet received a request, agency spokesman Stephen Kodak said.
“There are a number of extremist groups within Pakistan that could have carried out the attack,” a U.S. official said on condition of anonymity. “Al Qaeda has got to be one of the groups at the top of the list.”
Bhutto’s relationship with Musharraf frayed after her return to Pakistan, but the United States continued to support her as a central figure in its efforts to promote a democratic transition in the country.
The United States pressured Musharraf to release her from house arrest, which he had imposed to prevent her from leading a protest, and it sent Deputy Secretary of Stateto try to revive a political deal between Bhutto and Musharraf in November.
Rick Barton, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said the attack underscored the weakness of Musharraf and the military.
“These kinds of events really just prove the danger of growing extremism in the country and the lack of any real authority,” he said.
(Additional reporting by Deborah Charles, Paul Eckert and Randall Mikkelsen, writing by, editing by Jackie Frank)