ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - Pummeled by international and domestic skepticism over his government's version of events surrounding Benazir Bhutto's assassination, President Pervez Musharraf announced yesterday that Pakistan had invited Scotland Yard to help investigate the killing.
In his first major address to the nation since Bhutto was slain last Thursday, the Pakistani leader defended the decision to delay by six weeks parliamentary elections that were to have taken place next Tuesday. Rioting in the aftermath of the Bhutto assassination, he said, had left the security situation too precarious to proceed as scheduled.
Leaders of the major opposition parties denounced the postponement but said they would participate in the Feb. 18 polling under protest. Western governments generally regard the vote, which will be Pakistan's first parliamentary election in more than five years, as an essential benchmark in the move toward full civilian rule.
Musharraf, who seized power in a 1999 coup, stepped down as army chief in November and took office as a civilian president. But prodemocracy critics remain angry over his six-weeklong imposition of emergency rule that ended in mid-December. During that time, he suspended the constitution, jailed thousands of opposition activists, fired senior judges, and imposed curbs on independent broadcast outlets.
The assassination of Bhutto, an opposition leader and former prime minister, generated a new wave of fury against Musharraf, already unpopular among Pakistanis.
Asif Ali Zardari, Bhutto's widower who took the reins of her Pakistan People's Party, declared on national television after Musharraf spoke that the party would participate in the vote but that people should "express their anger through their ballots."
In recent days, Zardari has called repeatedly for an international investigation of Bhutto's slaying, sharply questioning statements made by Musharraf's government about the circumstances of the attack.
In his half-hour speech, the Pakistani leader refrained from repeating the much-derided contention made by his Interior Ministry last week that Bhutto died from a skull fracture sustained when, propelled by the force of the suicide bomb that went off a few yards from her armored sports utility vehicle, she struck her head on the lever of the sunroof.
Musharraf said new evidence had since emerged, including videos, still photos, and witness statements, that investigators would take into account. Some images have shown a gunman firing toward Bhutto. They also have shown a second man believed to have set off the explosion seconds later.
Critics say that crucial physical evidence was destroyed by police hosing down the scene of the blast within 90 minutes after it occurred and that doctors have been intimidated into recanting statements that Bhutto died from gunshot wounds to the neck and head. No autopsy was performed.
In life, Bhutto's relationship with Musharraf was highly fraught. She had spent much of the past year in power-sharing talks with him that broke down in November after he twice placed her under house arrest when she tried to make campaign appearances.
The Pakistani leader did not travel to Bhutto's ancestral hometown for the funeral or during three days of mourning. Zardari said he would not have been welcome, and mourners paying tribute at the family tomb frequently burst out into impassioned anti-Musharraf slogans. At one point, Bhutto's husband referred to the ruling party as the "assassins' league."
Many of Bhutto's supporters blame the government for, at the very least, failing to safeguard her security. Bhutto herself had blamed rogue elements within the government for complicity in a previous attempt to kill her with a massive suicide bomb when she returned home to Pakistan in October after eight years of exile.
In his speech, Musharraf appeared to be trying to defuse some of the rage directed at him by Bhutto's backers. He referred to the "martyred" former prime minister in respectful tones, saying her mission had been to promote democracy and fight terrorism.
"I assure you that is my mission as well," he said.
In the immediate aftermath of the assassination, the government rebuffed offers of international assistance. But Western diplomats said Musharraf's government had been quietly but strongly urged over the past several days to reverse that stance.
The Bush administration, Musharraf's chief patron, praised the Pakistani leader for agreeing to accept outside help with the investigation. US officials said American offers of aid had been extended as well. But it was decided that the close US ties to Musharraf made British assistance less problematic.
Scotland Yard said in a statement that it was dispatching a small team from the Metropolitan Police's Counterterrorism Command, and Britain's Foreign Office said the team would leave for Pakistan by week's end.
The Pakistani government has blamed Baitullah Mahsud, a Taliban leader believed to be linked to Al Qaeda, for masterminding the assassination. Musharraf did not directly repeat the accusation but cited extremist leaders as the greatest threat facing the country.
"We need to fight terrorism with full force, and if we don't succeed, the future of Pakistan will be dark," he said.
Rioting that broke out following Bhutto's death left nearly 60 people dead and millions of dollars in property damage.