LARKANA, Pakistan — Violence and recriminations grew Friday over the assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, as Pakistan's government changed its account of how she died while her supporters charged that the government withheld personal protection she'd requested.
As deadly protests continued to rage on Pakistan's streets, the country's Interior Ministry said that Bhutto — buried Friday without an autopsy — had died after she was thrown against the lever of her car's sunroof, fracturing her skull.
Initially, the government had said that flying shrapnel killed Bhutto, 54, after a shooting and suicide bombing as she left a political rally in the city of Rawalpindi.
The new version of events fueled ever-present conspiracy theories in Pakistan, a nuclear-armed nation that's on the front lines of President Bush's war on terrorism and risks sliding further into political chaos.
The Pakistani government also said it had proof that Bhutto's killing was the work of a violent Islamic chieftain with ties to al Qaida and the Taliban.
"We have intelligence intercepts indicating that al Qaida leader Baitullah Mehsud is behind her assassination," Interior Ministry spokesman Javed Iqbal Cheema said.
Mehsud, who's based in the lawless Waziristan region on Pakistan's border with Afghanistan, has been behind a series of suicide attacks in the region, according to U.S. officials.
Pakistani authorities released a transcript of what they said was a conversation in which Mehsud exults after being told by an unidentified religious cleric that Bhutto is dead.
"It was a spectacular job. They were very brave boys who killed her," Mehsud said, according to the transcript.
In Washington, a U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the subject's sensitivity, said Mehsud was on "anyone's very short list" of suspects behind the killing. But the U.S. government had no separate confirmation of his role, he said.
Bhutto returned to Pakistan from exile in October partly at the urging of the Bush administration, which saw a renewed role for her as the best hope for returning the country to democracy and stability.
There were fears for her safety even before she arrived, which were heightened after twin suicide bombings upon her return that narrowly missed her and killed more than 130 others.
Shuja Nawaz, a Pakistani political analyst and former journalist who was close to Bhutto, said he'd spoken to her before she returned, asking, "Have you done any thinking about your personal safety?"
Bhutto said it was "all in the hands of Allah," Nawaz said in an interview, but he looked into procuring the high-tech body armor known as Dragonskin.
It turned out the armor couldn't be exported without a license, which Pakistan's defense attache in Washington would have to request. Nawaz said Bhutto told him: "It's too complicated, and I don't want to ask the government for any favors."
Pakistan's ambassador to Washington, Mahmud Ali Durrani, said in a television interview Thursday that the security accorded Bhutto was "almost the same" as President Pervez Musharraf's.
"She was given not exactly what maybe she asked for, but for Pakistan's environment, she was given the best protection possible," Durrani said on PBS's "NewsHour with Jim Lehrer."
Nawaz and Bhutto's allies disputed that.
Washington lawyer Mark A. Siegel, Bhutto's U.S. spokesman, released an e-mail that he said Bhutto had written Oct. 26, eight days after the earlier attempt on her life, complaining that Musharraf had denied her needed security measures.
"I have been made to feel insecure by his minions," read the e-mail, which Siegel sent to CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer for release in event of her death. "There is no way what is happening in terms of stopping me from taking private cars or using tinted windows or giving jammers or four police mobiles to cover all sides could happen without him."
The "jammers" appear to refer to devices that can interfere with the detonation of bombs, which — like the body armor — wouldn't have saved Bhutto's life Thursday. The "four police mobiles" refers to a screen of vehicles to the left, right, back and front of her own.
But others said that Bhutto, who loved political rallies, at times seemed heedless of her own security, or fatalistic.
"In her enthusiasm, she got carried away, and exposed herself in ways" she shouldn't have, said former State Department official Marvin Weinbaum of the Washington-based Middle East Institute.
In Pakistan, the shifting government explanations and Bhutto's burial without autopsy aroused suspicion.
Babar Awan, a senior official of Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party, said of the sunroof theory: "That is a false claim." He said he'd seen her body after the attack and there were at least two bullet marks, one in the neck and one on the top of the head: "It was a targeted, planned killing. The firing was from more than one side."
Pakistan's caretaker prime minister, Mohammadmian Soomro, told the Cabinet that Bhutto's husband had insisted on no autopsy. But according to a leading lawyer, Athar Minallah, an autopsy is mandatory under Pakistan's criminal law in a case of this nature.
"It is absurd, because without autopsy it is not possible to investigate. Is the state not interested in reaching the perpetrators of this heinous crime or there was a cover-up?" Minallah said.
The scene of the attack also was watered down with a high-pressure hose within an hour, washing away evidence.
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent. Strobel reported from Washington.)