- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 17, 2008

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (AP) — A suicide bomber rammed a car packed with explosives into a crowd after a rally for an opposition candidate yesterday, killing 37 persons and heightening fears of Islamist militant violence during tomorrow’s crucial parliamentary elections.

Most of the victims of the attack appeared to be members of the opposition Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) of slain former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. They had gathered at the home of the targeted candidate after the rally in a volatile tribal region bordering Afghanistan, said Mushtaq Hussain, an administrative official in the area.

“Several of our party members are lying in a pool of blood,” said Zafar Ali, a party supporter at the scene.

The attack occurred two days before elections considered crucial to restoring democracy in Pakistan after eight years of military rule under President Pervez Musharraf. Recent opinion polls show the opposition poised for a landslide victory as a result of disenchantment with Mr. Musharraf’s rule.

In another area along the border, a second car bombing near a checkpoint killed two civilians and wounded eight security personnel, said army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas. That blast occurred near Swat, a former tourist destination where security forces have battled armed supporters of a pro-Taliban cleric in recent months.

The candidate targeted in the first suicide bombing, Syed Riaz Hussain, was unharmed. He is an independent backed by the PPP.

Interior Ministry spokesman Javed Iqbal Cheema said 37 persons were killed and more than 90 wounded when a suicide bomber drove into a crowd as they were preparing to eat in the town of Parachinar.

Asked who could be behind the bombing, he said those “who want to derail the election process.”

The Dec. 27 assassination of Mrs. Bhutto and a string of suicide bombings — some targeting campaign rallies — have been blamed on al Qaeda- or Taliban-linked militants.

For some, the biggest fear is major violence between political parties if there are widespread accusations of cheating.

Highlighting those tensions, hundreds of police surrounded and then clashed with more than 1,500 supporters of a coalition of anti-Musharraf parties boycotting the vote in the southwestern city of Quetta yesterday. Seven persons were injured.

The demonstrators threw rocks at police, who responded with tear gas before arresting 50 activists, police said. A truck and three motorcycles were burned in the melee, and the street was littered with party flags.

In the northwest, suspected militants also bombed a polling station that badly damaged the building but caused no injuries.

The government has deployed 81,000 soldiers to back up 392,000 police assigned to protect voters, Gen. Abbas said.

Mr. Musharraf said yesterday he was confident the elections would be free and fair and, hopefully, without violence.

“We will have a stable, democratically elected government and with the stable, democratically elected government we will ensure a successful fight against terrorism and extremism,” he said in a speech to diplomats and senior government officials that ran on state-run Pakistan Television.

Although Mr. Musharraf is not up for re-election, he could face impeachment if the opposition wins a two-thirds majority in the legislature.

Opposition politicians fear the results will be manipulated in hopes of assuring the ruling party enough seats to block any impeachment.

“We know very well that elections are being rigged,” former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, one of the president’s sharpest critics, told reporters at his home in the eastern city of Lahore. “We are going to elections in an environment of cheating, fear and threats.”

Kanwar Dilshad, the No. 2 official in Pakistan’s Election Commission, insisted there would be no rigging.

“We are neutral. A level playing field has been provided to all the contesting candidates, and we are doing our job to ensure free, fair, transparent and peaceful elections,” Mr. Dilshad said.

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