ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — A suspected suicide bomber killed at least 27 people and wounded 40 at an opposition rally Saturday in insurgency-wracked northwest Pakistan as police in Islamabad clashed with hundreds of lawyers and other protesters demanding the resignation of President Pervez Musharraf.
The husband of slain former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, meanwhile, kicked off the opposition Pakistan Peoples Party campaign for Feb. 18 national elections with a speech to some 100,000 jubilant supporters.
"She is alive, Bibi, she is alive," declared Asif Ali Zardari, using the nickname of his late wife, who died in a gun-and-suicide bomb attack on Dec. 27. "Her whole life was for you. My whole life is for you. My children's lives are for you."
It was by far the largest gathering of what has been a lackluster campaign, where fear of terror attacks has held back both candidates and crowds.
Friday's violence bore out fears that political turmoil is likely to worsen in the run-up to the polls. Musharraf's government responded by promising to step up security for candidates.
Amid the unrest, Adm. Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, met with Musharraf and top Pakistani military leaders to discuss a possible expansion of limited U.S. counter-insurgency training of Pakistani security forces.
Mullen is the senior-most of a string of U.S. military and intelligence officials to visit Pakistan in recent weeks, a sign of the alarm within the Bush administration over the expanding insurgency by al Qaida-allied Islamic groups based in the tribal region bordering Afghanistan
"Certainly the threat is going up," said Mullen. "There is training potential that we can offer (to Pakistani security forces) and if we're asked to do that, we can," he said.
Pakistan has been hit by a surge in attacks on security forces and suicide bombings since Musharraf ordered an assault last summer on an Islamabad mosque held by radical Islamic students in which dozens of people died.
The bombing Saturday occurred in Charsadda, about 25 miles from the North West Frontier Province capital of Peshawar, ripping through a rally of hundreds of supporters of the Awami National Party.
At least 27 people died and 40 were injured, said NWFP Special Home Secretary Teepu Khan, a senior security official.
"It might have been a bomb placed under the podium, but it looks like a suicide attack," he told McClatchy by telephone, adding that police had recovered a severed head believed to have belonged to the suspected bomber.
The ANP is a regional secular party representing Pashtuns, the ethnic group that inhabits the Pakistan-Afghanistan border region. Pashtuns dominate the Afghan Taliban and the recently formed Taliban Movement of Pakistan, whose leader has been accused of plotting Bhutto's slaying.
The clashes in central Islamabad erupted when police moved to disperse a protest by some 500 lawyers, political activists and students demanding Musharraf's resignation and the reinstatement of fired Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry.
The protesters planned to march to Chaudhry's home, where he and his family have been under house arrest since Musharraf sacked him and dozens of other jurists in November.
Witnesses said police suddenly opened fire with tear gas and water canon, igniting clashes with the protesters.
"We will keep struggling," vowed Athar Minawalla, Chaudhry's' lawyer, when he was reached on his cellular phone at a police station after he and about one dozen others were arrested.
The protest was called as part of a national movement for the reinstatement of Chaudhry and the other judges led by lawyers who are boycotting courts across the country of 165 million.
The purge of the judges was seen as a bid by Musharraf, who seized power in a 1999 coup, to pre-empt challenges to legally dubious constitutional changes he enacted to extend his presidential term while remaining army chief, a post he resigned in December.
Zardari addressed the rally in Thatta, a historic town in the PPP's stronghold of southern Sindh province, about 60 miles from the country's financial capital of Karachi.
The crowd's size and enthusiasm seemed to vindicate Zardari's controversial assumption of the leadership of the party that Bhutto took over from her father, former prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. He was ousted in a 1977 coup and executed two years later.
In an interview with McClatchy after the rally, Mr Zardari said: "She (Benazir) is bigger in martyrdom than she would have been in her life. That's why I don't understand why they did it (killed her). Every kid you ask now is politicized."
The reception could fuel any ambition Zardari harbors for the prime ministership, analysts said. The Bhutto family cult appears to have been re-energized by her death, said some rally-goers.
"We think Mr Zardari should be prime minister," asserted Askar Malkana. "Bibi must have explained to Mr. Zardari how to deal with the establishment."
Earlier this week, Zardari completed 40 days of mourning, during which he kept himself largely in seclusion, as is traditional in Islam.
In his first comments on a report released Friday by British detectives that Bhutto died when the suicide bomb explosion drove her head against the escape hatch of her armored car after a rally, he said: "The people of Pakistan don't seem to accept it."
"I would still put the blame on the local establishment and the local investigating authorities," he said. "They first destroyed the evidence and then not shared the proper evidence they took."
He was referring to the authorities' failure to secure forensic evidence before the attack site in the city of Rawalpindi was hosed down.