CIA Director Michael V. Hayden said in an interview Friday that his organization had concluded that the terrorist group al-Qaida was ultimately to be blamed for the Bhutto attack and numerous other suicide bombings that have rocked the country recently, as an important parliamentary election approaches on Feb. 18.
"What you see is, I think, a change in the character of what's going on there," Hayden told the Washington Post in an interview. "You've got this nexus now that probably was always there in latency but is now active: a nexus between al-Qaida and various extremist and separatist groups."
Intelligence officials suspected a connection between al-Qaida and the Bhutto blast in Rawalpindi from the moment of the attack. Not long after, Pakistani officials released intercepts between Pakistani tribal leader Baitullah Mehsud and his supporters praising the attack. Hayden said in the Friday interview that Mehsud's network carried out the assassination, but received financial backing from al-Qaida.
"It is clear that their intention is to continue to try to do harm to the Pakistani state as it currently exists," Hayden said in the interview.
Recent months have seen a wave of suicide attacks in Pakistan, killing at least 400 people. On Thursday, a Sunni suicide attacker blew himself up in a crowded Shiite mosque in Peshawar, killing 11 people and wounding an additional 25. Security personnel were on high alert Friday, with sharpshooters guarding holy sites across the country out of fear of more sectarian violence.
"Security was already tight, but it has further been beefed up across the country," Interior Ministry spokesman Javed Iqbal Cheema told the Associated Press on Friday.
Sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shiites is not uncommon during the Shiite holy month of Muharram. It is a period of mourning for Shiites, lamenting the seventh-century death of the Prophet Muhammad's grandson, Imam Hussein. His death ultimately led to the split between Sunnis and Shiites.
But in addition to sectarian attacks, there have also been recent signs that Muslim extremists are becoming bolder in Pakistan. A Wednesday raid in the province of South Waziristan saw a military outpost overrun by militants, killing 22 government troops. That raid has been blamed on rebels loyal to Mehsud. US officials believe that the ongoing deterioration of President Musharraf's popularity and authority may have brought Mehsud and al-Qaida closer together.
Despite the CIA's certainty that al-Qaida was involved in the Bhutto killing, not everyone is willing to accept the Americans' version of the story. Bhutto's party, the Pakistan Peoples Party, continues to suspect that Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf bears some responsibility. Indeed, Bhutto herself said before she died that, if anything happened to her, she blamed Musharraf.
The elections in Pakistan were originally to have been held on Jan. 8, but were delayed -- against the wishes of the PPP -- due to the assassination of Bhutto.
Musharraf has seen his power, once virtually absolute, slip in recent months. In November, Musharraf resigned as head of the Pakistani army so as to remain president in accordance with the constitution. He allowed Bhutto, long in exile, to return to the country as part of a power-sharing deal brokered in part by the United States.
The deal foresaw Bhutto winning the parliamentary elections and becoming prime minister under President Musharraf. The assassination of Bhutto, however, throws Pakistan's political future into doubt.
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