ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — The assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto killed the Bush administration's last hope that Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf could simultaneously defeat al Qaida and the Taliban and return his country to democratic rule.
Now, Pakistani experts said, the administration faces a tough choice: Press its unpopular and isolated ally to resign or share the blame as Musharraf drags his nation toward a violent implosion that could give Islamic extremists a more extensive haven in western Pakistan than the one they already have.
"Musharraf has become a symbol of everything that is wrong," said Ijaz Khan, a Peshawar University professor of international relations. "He can no longer be part of the solution. This is what Washington must understand.
"Either this man leaves," Khan added, "or there will perhaps be a civil war."
By continuing to support Musharraf, the United States and its allies "might not just lose the battle for Pakistani hearts and minds, they also could be faced with the nightmare prospect of a nuclear-armed, Muslim-majority country of 165 million descending into violent internal conflict from which only extremist forces would stand to gain," the International Crisis Group said in a report Wednesday.
Many U.S. officials, however, are reluctant to abandon Musharraf because they're skeptical that any opposition leader has the acumen, the broad political support and the backing of the army — which has seized power four times over the past 60 years — needed to govern the nation of divergent ethnic and religious groups.
Withdrawing support for Musharraf at this late date, these officials argue, would be a major victory for his Islamic extremist enemies, and it could only speed Pakistan's disintegration.
Many analysts, political leaders and ordinary Pakistanis, however, think that with Musharraf gone, people would be more confident that the elections, now postponed until February, would be free and fair and produce a civilian national unity government that could move Pakistan to civilian rule.
"Now nothing else can work ... Either this man leaves ..." Khan said. "I'm in doubt that this can work, but it's the only thing we have left."
There are limits to Washington's influence in Pakistan, already sapped by the administration's support for Musharraf and its wars in neighboring Afghanistan and in Iraq. But as Musharraf's main foreign backer, the United States could pressure him to step aside.
"The major mistake the United States is making in Pakistan is that it seems to feel that without Musharraf, it hasn't got a policy," said Ikram Sehgal, a defense journal editor and political commentator. "This is absolutely totally wrong. Remember Winston Churchill said the graveyard is full of indispensable people."
The administration has shown no sign that it's prepared to abandon Musharraf, who ended Pakistani patronage of the Taliban after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and has sent thousands of troops into the tribal region bordering Afghanistan to fight the extremists and al Qaida.
Three days after Bhutto was buried, the administration announced the approval of a sale of F-16s fighters to Musharraf's military-backed government.
The Bush administration stood by Musharraf last year as he suspended the constitution to remain army chief and president under the pretext of fighting extremism. He purged dozens of judges who might have blocked his plan, including the chief justice of the Supreme Court, muzzled independent media and detained thousands of opponents.
However, a surge in suicide bombings and other violence, combined with a movement demanding Musharraf's ouster, forced Washington to adjust its policy late last year, with Bhutto as the new centerpiece. The new U.S. strategy was designed to nudge Pakistan back toward civilian rule and unite the country against al Qaida-allied extremists.
Washington and its allies persuaded Musharraf to end a state of emergency, relinquish his position as army chief and allow Bhutto to return from political exile to contest Jan. 8 parliamentary elections that were expected to bring her back as prime minister.
But the strategy, already in trouble amid indications that Musharraf was willing to shed his uniform but not to surrender power, died with Bhutto on Dec. 27.
For millions of Pakistanis, the assassination of the country's most popular politician was a final straw.
The government's shifting accounts of how she died and its failure to secure the crime scene to preserve evidence for investigators only convinced many Pakistanis that the government, which has defeated numerous attempts to assassinate Musharraf, either had a hand in her death or allowed it to happen.
A decision Wednesday to postpone the elections for six weeks added to expectations that the government will rig the voting to neutralize what's expected to be a sympathy vote for Bhutto's Pakistan Peoples Party.
"Even before the latest tragedy, there was no hope in hell for free, fair and impartial elections," said Syed Iqbal Haider, the head of the independent Pakistan Human Rights Commission. "The dice are already overloaded."
The commission was among the first to call for Musharraf to turn the country over to a national unity caretaker government of all major political parties. That caretaker government would replace the army-controlled election commission to oversee the election of a civilian government.
Major political parties — including the PPP and that of Bhutto's longtime rival, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif — moderate Islamist leaders once allied with Musharraf and many ordinary Pakistanis have embraced the demand.
Khan said he fears there's little time left. Bhutto's death has set political and ethnic tensions boiling, and Islamic extremists are extending their violent campaign for Taliban-style Islamic rule into Peshawar, the capital of Northwest Frontier Province, he said.
A letter circulated around the university last month threatened unspecified retribution "if this co-education continues and women students come . . . without their faces covered and freely mingle with boys," Khan said.
"There must be an urgent solution now," he said. "It's now or never."