The Benazir Bhutto I knew

Her death need not be the beginning of Pakistan's end.

Benazir Bhutto was a beautiful and idealistic woman when she came to Pakistan's rescue in 1988. Growing up as the scion of one of its most powerful political families imposed enormous responsibilities on her and created perhaps unrealistic expectations of what she could deliver to save her chaotic country from disintegration. Her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, reportedly encouraged her as an up-and-coming politician to study the lives of history's great women leaders, from Joan of Arc to Indira Ghandi, so she could prepare to lead Pakistan.

During her two terms in office as prime minister, Ms. Bhutto earned a reputation among many as an imperious, venal, and corrupt politician, bringing Pakistan to the brink of financial ruin on more than one occasion. Her assassination now brings this teeming, nuclear-armed nation to the brink of complete state failure, with inevitable accusations that President Pervez Musharraf's intelligence and security services – charged with protecting her welfare as she campaigned for a third stint as prime minister – were somehow complicit in her death. Civil war, or worse, an Islamist army coup in the ensuing political chaos that may engulf Pakistan in the coming days and weeks before the elections scheduled for Jan. 8, 2008, are now the two most likely scenarios if Mr. Musharraf does not re-impose martial law.

I knew Benazir well. I am often blamed by her supporters for having helped bring her government down in 1996 by exposing her hypocrisy and corruption in two Wall Street Journal Op-Ed pieces. We remained in touch over the years after she went into exile, even developing a begrudging respect for each other over time. She struck me as a terribly conflicted person who deep in her heart wanted to save Pakistan from its evils, but was unable to put her personal lifestyle choices aside in doing so. But I firmly believe that she loved Pakistan, and for all her faults, had returned there this time to turn a new page in its troubled political history. We should remember her for her courage to stand up in the face of incalculable odds to bring some semblance of sanity to the disaster that Pakistan has become.

Musharraf, with whom she tried futilely over the past three months to cobble together a power-sharing arrangement, must immediately call for an independent international investigation into her assassination, led by a blue ribbon panel of FBI and MI5 officials, that determines the extent – or lack – of complicity from Pakistan's police and intelligence services in her death. This is the most critical decision he can make as a gesture of national reconciliation with bereaved Pakistan Peoples Party workers to avoid the appearance of conflict to his ongoing service as president, and to prevent Pakistan's descent into civil war or an internally led Islamist army coup.

Her death will not have been in vain if Musharraf galvanizes the forces of democracy that bubble just under the surface of Pakistan's political fabric to have a truly transparent election of all of Pakistan's political leaders. In order to level the playing field, the Election Commission should delay the election until early February so each party can have time to regroup.

The Pakistan People's Party should select a new candidate to contest the elections – they have a good candidate in human rights activist and lawyer Aitzaz Ahsan – and get him on the campaign trail as soon as the mourning period for Benazir is over. The Election Commission should allow Nawaz Sharif, as bad a choice for Pakistan as he would be, to contest the election so the grass roots of democratic activism in this nation of 165 million people can take hold once again. Rebuilding political institutions was one of Benazir's key platforms as a candidate. The country should honor her death by making that happen.

Benazir Bhutto was a brave woman. She was the face of modernity that Pakistan needed to salvage its descent into a sea of Islamist darkness. She should be remembered as a guardian of Pakistan's identity as a modern Islamic nation. Her death need not be the beginning of Pakistan's end.

• Mansoor Ijaz, a New York financier of Pakistani ancestry, jointly authored a cease-fire plan between Muslim militants and Indian security forces in Kashmir in 2000 and met with Benazir Bhutto on more than a dozen occasions in Islamabad, Dubai, and London since 1994.

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