||ISLAMABAD, Pakistan â€” As the opposition leader Benazir Bhutto was laid to rest, the government on Friday recast its version of the events of her assassination and announced that it had obtained an intelligence intercept pinning the attack on a militant linked to Al Qaeda.
With many of Ms. Bhuttoâ€™s supporters openly blaming the government for her death, the Interior Ministry made the surprising announcement that Ms. Bhutto had died not from gunshots or shrapnel but from a skull fracture when she was thrown by the force of the suicide bomb and hit her head on a lever of the sunroof of the car in which she was riding.
A senior American official in Washington said there was some debate within the Bush administration over whether to press President Pervez Musharraf to open the investigation to law enforcement officials from outside Pakistan, including the F.B.I.
The body of Ms. Bhutto, a former prime minister, was interred at a mausoleum at her ancestral village in southern Pakistan on Friday in a ceremony attended by thousands of mourners as riots continued across the country, leaving 23 people dead, including four security officers.
To prevent the violence from spreading, the government ordered an almost complete shutdown of services. Officials suspended much train service and most domestic flights. Gas stations across the country were closed, making it virtually impossible to make long journeys by car. Roads were closed around city centers, and television and Internet services were shut down or operated only sporadically in most cities.
As pressure grew for an independent inquiry, the government said two high-level investigations were being conducted: one led by the senior judiciary and one by high-level police and intelligence officials.
The government identified a militant leader with links to Al Qaeda, Baitullah Mehsud, who holds sway in tribal areas near the Afghanistan border, as the chief suspect behind the attack.
â€œWe have an intercept from this morning in which he congratulated his people for carrying out this act,â€ Brig. Javed Iqbal Cheema, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry, said in a briefing to reporters.
â€œWe have irrefutable evidence that Al Qaeda and its networks are trying to destabilize the government,â€ he added. â€œThey have been systematically attacking our government, and now a political icon.â€ Ms. Bhutto, he said, was on the hit list of Al Qaeda and other terrorists.
Mr. Mehsud has been blamed for most of the rising tide of suicide attacks on government, military and intelligence targets in recent months. Based in the South Waziristan tribal areas, he is known to run training camps, prepare and dispatch suicide bombers on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, and have links to the Arab and Central Asian militants who have established a stronghold in the tribal areas.
Brigadier Cheema said the Bhutto assassination was connected to several other attacks whose targets have included Mr. Musharraf and several high-ranking government officials over the last few years, as well as to some more recent attacks on army and intelligence personnel.
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. â€œOne of the levers of the sunroof hit her on the right side, which caused a fracture, and that is what caused her death,â€ 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.
â€œThere was no bullet that hit Mohtarma Bhutto, there was no splinter that hit Mohtarma Bhutto, and there was no pellet that hit her,â€ 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.
Ms. Bhutto was almost unconscious when taken to the hospital, he added. He said that Ms. Bhuttoâ€™s husband had not allowed an autopsy but that doctors conducted an external postmortem and took X-rays.
Islamic custom dictates that the body be buried as soon as possible.
President Bush, who is at his ranch in Crawford, Tex., this week, held a teleconference on Friday with his senior national security advisers, including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice; Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates; the C.I.A. director, Gen. Michael V. Hayden; and Stephen J. Hadley, the national security adviser, to weigh options for Pakistan.
â€œThe president told his senior national security team that the United States needs to support democracy in Pakistan and help Pakistan in its struggle against extremism and terrorism,â€ said Scott Stanzel, a White House spokesman.
Mr. Musharraf and his supporters in the Bush administration, meanwhile, were coming under increasing pressure, inside and outside Pakistan, to open up the inquiry. Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, Democrat of New York, said Friday that the United States should call for an independent investigation.
â€œI donâ€™t think the Pakistani government at this time under President Musharraf has any credibility at all,â€ she told CNN in an interview. She suggested an investigation along the lines of the ongoing international inquiry into the assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri.
State Department officials said they had no plans for the moment to join the investigation. But a senior Bush administration official said, â€œThereâ€™s a growing sense that weâ€™re going to have to work on the investigation in some way, that it canâ€™t just be a Pakistani investigation.â€
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly on the issue, said that administration officials were concerned that â€œthereâ€™s so much distrustâ€ of the Musharraf government among Pakistanis that outside nations may have to join the investigation to give the findings any credibility.
A second administration official said the idea of an independent international investigation had been proposed by â€œa number of people, and is certainly something that hasnâ€™t been ruled out.â€ But, he added, no decision had been made.
Indeed the distrust of Pakistanâ€™s government among Ms. Bhuttoâ€™s supporters runs strong and deep, and the governmentâ€™s effort to place responsibility for the assassination on Qaeda-linked militants may not be readily accepted by them.
One Western official who met with Ms. Bhutto the day before her death said that while Ms. Bhutto was concerned about the threat from militants, she was most preoccupied by government restrictions on her campaign before parliamentary elections scheduled for Jan. 8.
She complained that in the city of Peshawar, she had to hold her rally in a cricket stadium far away from the center of town under tight security, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of security concerns. She was not allowed to lead a procession all the way to the stadium, and she complained that the crowd of some 2,000 supporters was small because of the restrictions.
Ms. Bhutto also complained that while the militants represented a threat, the government was as much a threat in its failure to ensure security. After she returned to Pakistan from eight years in self-imposed exile, she sent an e-mail message on Oct. 26 to her spokesman in the United States, Mark Siegel, saying that if anything happened to her, Mr. Musharraf should be held responsible.
â€œI have been made to feel insecure by his minions and there is no way what is happening in terms of stopping me from taking private cars or using tinted windows or giving jammers or four police mobiles to cover all sides could happen without him,â€ the message read.
She also suggested on many occasions that either the government had a deal with the militants that allowed them to carry on their terrorist activities, or that Mr. Musharrafâ€™s approach at dealing with them was utterly ineffective.
Brigadier Cheema acknowledged as much. Asked why the government did not act against Mr. Mehsud, when he was known to be training suicide bombers, he said, â€œIt is not that easy.â€ Mr. Mehsud is always on the move and goes underground very quickly after communicating with his people, so it is hard for the security forces to follow up on intelligence intercepts, he said.
The opposition leaderâ€™s death, meanwhile, left the nationâ€™s politics teetering on a knifeâ€™s edge, and the prospect of elections uncertain. At Ms. Bhuttoâ€™s funeral, grief-stricken supporters thronged the ambulance carrying her remains as it crawled through a haze of dust from her family home in Garhi Khuda Baksh, in southern Sindh Province, to an imposing white marble mausoleum three miles away.
Wailing mourners beat their heads and jostled to touch the coffin, draped in the red, green and black flag of the Pakistan Peoples Party, which Ms. Bhutto had led for decades. They wept and threw rose petals as the coffin was lowered into the grave beside the grave of her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who was president and prime minister from 1971 to 1977. He was ousted and executed by a military dictator in 1979.
Clad in a white Sindhi cap, her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, wept as he helped lower the simple coffin into the grave. He was accompanied by the coupleâ€™s son, Bilawal, 19, and two daughters, Bakhtawar, 17, and Aseefa, 14, news reports said.
Even as Ms. Bhutto was laid to rest in the midst of a chaotic but peaceful crowd, there were signs of the violent outbursts that had erupted after her death. En route to the mausoleum, the coffin passed the smoldering wreckage of a passenger train that rioters had set aflame, according to The Associated Press. Rioting flared across Pakistan.
Thousands of people took to the streets in the central city of Multan, ransacking banks and gas stations and throwing stones at the police, The A.P. reported. In the generally peaceful capital, Islamabad, a crowd of about 100 protesters set fire to tires.
In Peshawar, an estimated 4,000 supporters of Ms. Bhuttoâ€™s party chanted, â€œBhutto was alive yesterday, Bhutto is alive today,â€ and cried, â€œMusharraf dog.â€
The continuing violence caused many to question whether the government could proceed with parliamentary elections. But the government has announced a three-day mourning period for Ms. Bhutto and no decision is likely to be made during it.
Muhammad Mian Soomro, the caretaker prime minister, told reporters in Islamabad that the government would hold talks with all political parties to chart a plan of action, but that â€œright now, the elections stand as they were announced.â€
The Pakistan Peoples Party has made no comment on its election plans. All the leaders of the party attended the funeral on Friday, and they have declared that they will observe the traditional 40 days of mourning.
Yet the party could be expected to win an overwhelming sympathy vote, which could give it a majority in Parliament, analysts and politicians said. Other parties could also suffer in the polls from a backlash after the death of a national leader.
Several leading politicians said they did not think the government could go ahead with elections so soon after what is being described as a national tragedy that has dismayed people across the political spectrum.
Another politician was killed Friday in a suicide attack in the Swat Valley, a famed tourist area in northwestern Pakistan. And on Thursday, a sniper killed four people at a rally for Nawaz Sharif, a former prime minister and the leader of the other main opposition party.
â€œSpeaking on a personal level, there is no mood or inclination to have an election,â€ said Mushahid Hussain Sayed, secretary general of the Pakistan Muslim League faction that backs Mr. Musharraf. He said the elections could be postponed until March to allow people time to regroup. â€œRight now there is so much uncertainty.â€
Salman Masood contributed reporting from Islamabad, and Helene Cooper from Washington.
Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company