ISLAMABAD, Pakistan Pakistan's election commission said Tuesday that unrest following the killing of Benazir Bhutto would almost certainly force the postponement of Jan. 8 elections, despite opposition threats of street protests if the poll is delayed.
As election officials met with political leaders to discuss a possible delay, an aide to Bhutto said the opposition leader had been planning to give two U.S. lawmakers a report accusing the ruling regime of working to rig the vote when she was killed Thursday.
Government and election officials earlier said they expect a delay of up to six weeks in the polls, which are seen as key to restoring democracy to this nuclear armed U.S. ally.
Sen. Latif Khosa, a lawmaker from Bhutto's Pakistan Peoples Party, said he did not know if her killing was linked to the 160-page report she was to give to Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and Rep. Patrick Kennedy of Rhode Island at a meeting scheduled for a few hours after she was killed.
The file outlined several instances of electoral interference, including one case where a major from the intelligence services sat with an election official when the official rejected the nomination papers of Peoples Party candidates, Khosa said.
Another official stopped a candidate from filing his nomination in the southwestern Baluchistan province, he said.
"The elections were to be thoroughly rigged, and the king's party was to benefit in the electoral process," he said, referring to the Pakistan Muslim League-Q party, which is allied with President Pervez Musharraf.
Bhutto had repeatedly accused the government of rigging the vote, but rejected boycott calls by other opposition groups, saying she did not want leave the field open for Musharraf's loyalists.
Bhutto's killing last week thrust the country into crisis and triggered nationwide riots that killed 58 people and caused tens of millions of dollars in damage to homes, government offices and transport facilities. The violence has died down since Sunday amid a heavy police and army presence. Bhutto's home province of Sindh was especially hard hit.
Opposition groups have demanded the elections proceed as scheduled, anticipating that sympathy votes and anger at Musharraf would lead to large electoral gains.
However, election commission spokesman Kanwar Dilshad said it now "looks impossible" to hold the polls on Jan. 8.
"Our offices in 10 districts of Sindh have been burned, the electoral rolls have been burned, the polling schemes, the nomination papers have been burned," he said. "We are in a very tricky situation."
The commission said it would announce a final decision Wednesday after meeting Pakistan's political parties.
Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, leader of another opposition party, threatened street protests if the vote was delayed. "We will agitate," Sharif told The Associated Press on Monday. "We will not accept this postponement."
Bhutto's party, now led by her husband and son, accused Musharraf of wanting to delay the polls to allow public anger over her death to evaporate.
"There have been elections in conflict zones such as Iraq and Afghanistan so I find it difficult to understand why this election cannot be held on time," Sherry Rehman, spokesman for Bhutto's party, told Dawn TV.
Britain and the United States were also eager for the vote to take place as scheduled, but have indicated they would accept a slight delay if technical reasons dictated one.
"The key here is that there be a date certain for elections," Tom Casey, deputy spokesman for the U.S. State Department, said Monday. "We would certainly have concerns about some sort of indefinite postponement of the elections.
Bhutto was killed in a gun and suicide bomb attack that the government blamed on Islamic extremists.
Her husband and other opposition leaders have called for an international, independent investigation into the attack and accused Musharraf of failing to adequately protect her. Some close to Bhutto have alleged forces allied with Musharraf may have been involved.
"I hope the government will agree to our demand for foreign investigators to probe the assassination of Benazir Bhutto," her widowed husband, Asif Ali Zardari, said. "If they avoid it, we will directly approach the world powers in this regard."
Bhutto's 19-year-old son, who was appointed symbolic head of her party, left Pakistan for Dubai on Tuesday along with his two sisters.
The government which has rejected charges of involvement in Bhutto's death said in a statement it was "committed to a thorough and transparent investigation and will not shy away from receiving assistance from outside, if needed."
U.S. officials said Washington had provided a steady stream of intelligence to Bhutto about threats against her by Islamic extremists after suicide attackers came close to killing her in a massive blast hours after she returned from self-imposed exile in October.
They spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter.
"She knew people were trying to assassinate her," an intelligence official told the AP.
The officials said the United States had quietly joined calls for Pakistan to allow international experts assist the probe into Bhutto's slaying. The officials said they expected an announcement soon that investigators from Britain's Scotland Yard would be asked to play a significant role. Any U.S. involvement would be limited and low-key, they said.