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In Pakistan, fear of an ethnic divide

The political blame game over Bhutto's assassination and rising ethnic tensions raise worries about the fragility of the country's federal structure.

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With a solid claim of responsibility yet to surface, no one is being spared from accusations: Mr. Musharraf and Pakistan's strong intelligence agencies, Al Qaeda and tribal militants, rival political leaders, Washington, and even Bhutto's husband.

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And as the dust settles, political actors, desperate for electoral seats, are resorting to the ethnic card. Some observers say it is Musharraf's loyalists who are most keen to do so.

"It's unfortunate that these parties that are Musharraf's closest allies are stoking the ethnic fire more than anyone else," says Ansar Abbassi, a well-known journalist with one of the country's largest English dailies, The News. "This politics is dividing Pakistanis and it's dangerous," he says.

The establishment, some say, may have an interest in creating such divides before the elections. A fragmented electorate would benefit Musharraf and a divided legislature would mean that no single party is strong enough to challenge the president, who was elected for another five-year term in controversial circumstances last year, analysts say.

"The battle is for the Punjab," says Ms. Jalal. Bhutto's death has triggered a wave of support for her party in Punjab, which dominates representation in the legislature, at the expense of Musharraf's loyalist faction. The idea behind rallying ethnic identities at this point "might be to curb the PPP's surge in the province," which is the key to winning the elections, says Jalal.

While Musharraf's loyalists have attacked Bhutto's Sindhi supporters for targeting Punjab businesses and people in the riots that followed the assassination, Musharraf is blaming the tribal regions – especially Pashtun - where he claims the attack was coordinated from. In his last televised address, the president insisted that tribal leader Betullah Mehsud was behind the attacks.

Mr. Mehsud, whose phone conversations government representatives played at a press conference as proof of his involvement, has denied the charges, saying, "tribal customs don't allow for killing of women."

On a political stage where everyone appears to be on the defensive, a prominent Pashtun political leader and senator, Asfandhyar Wali Khan, said, "such unfounded accusations are bound to fuel hatred among the federating units."

"The government's botching of the investigations makes people think there is a coverup," says a civil service officer in the Punjab, who asked his name not be used.

"And when you have so many questions being asked, and not many being answered, no wonder people will resort to blame games and get defensive," he says.

Many fear that the further fanning of such sentiments can only worsen the situation in a country on edge. With Pakistan becoming a central battleground in the "war on terror," a divided country may be more vulnerable.

"If Pakistanis keep getting divided along different lines," says Mr. Abbassi, "it will play right into the designs of forces that want to further destabilize the country or some who want to denuclearize it."

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