RAWALPINDI, Pakistan — It was on the drive out of the downtown park that the assassin fired the fatal bullets at Benazir Bhutto.
The election rally had been long and lackluster, but on viewing the crowd gathered at the gates of Liaquat Bagh park, Bhutto turned to her deputy, Amin Fahim, and said she wanted to wave, Fahim recounted. The sunroof was opened and she stood up.
Three to five shots were fired at her, witnesses said. She was hit in the neck and slumped back in the vehicle. Blood poured from her head, and she never regained consciousness. Moments after the shooting, there was a huge explosion to the left of the vehicle.
Witnesses said that Bhutto's bodyguards pounced on the assassin, who then blew himself up, shredding those around him. Ambulance crews collected pieces of flesh from the scene. The road turned red with pools of blood.
I was standing near the rally stage, about 30 to 40 yards away from the scene of the shooting. There was pandemonium. On hearing the shots, I started running toward the scene. Then came the explosion. I ran back a bit. I didn't see the killer, and by the time I got to the gates, Bhutto's SUV was driving to a Rawalpindi hospital. She didn't have a chance.
The assassination occurred in this garrison city housing the headquarters of the Pakistan army, an institution that has always seemed opposed to Bhutto. A couple of miles away across Rawalpindi, a previous military regime had executed her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Pakistan's first democratically elected prime minister, in 1979, when she was 26.
Police officers had frisked the 3,000 to 4,000 people attending Thursday's rally when they entered the park, but as the speakers from Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party droned on, the police abandoned many of their posts. As she drove out through the gate, her main protection appeared to be her own bodyguards, who wore their usual white T-shirts inscribed: "Willing to die for Benazir."
Ghulam Mustafa, a witness at the scene, said he saw bodies with missing heads and limbs.
"This happens only in Iraq, Afghanistan or Pakistan. Why not America?" he said.
Bhutto's party had complained repeatedly that the government provided her with inadequate security. She'd narrowly escaped another assassination attempt, at her homecoming parade Oct. 18 in Karachi, which left 140 dead.
At Rawalpindi General Hospital, hundreds of Bhutto supporters pushed their way in, filling the corridors, weeping and shouting. They chanted "Musharraf is a dog" and "Musharraf murderer," referring to President Pervez Musharraf.
"They killed her father. They killed her two brothers. It is a national tragedy," said Safraz Khan, a near-hysterical supporter. "She was the force to unite Pakistan."
Said a frail man in the accident and emergency ward, Saqib Hussain, tears rolling down his cheeks: "I am 70, but today I feel like an orphan."
In the streets, youths manned intersections and lit fires. They stopped traffic and smashed cars. They cut electrical wires, plunging the city into darkness. No police were visible, in the hospital or the streets. These scenes were repeated in major cities across Pakistan. In Karachi, young supporters went on a rampage, shooting randomly at passing cars.
The crowd at the hospital seemed sure that the army and Musharraf's regime — the "establishment" — were behind the attack. Security experts think that al Qaida and Taliban militants were the most likely perpetrators of Thursday's and October's attacks.
"GHQ (general headquarters of the army) killed her," Sardar Saleem, a former member of parliament, said at the hospital.
Fahim, the deputy leader of Bhutto's party, announced 40 days of mourning, saying simply: "We are shattered."
Bhutto embodied the Pakistan People's Party, leaving it without any other popular leaders. It was the only major liberal political force in the country, stridently opposed to religious extremism. The United States had backed Bhutto strongly as the next prime minister, a post she'd held twice before and looked likely to win again in a fair election.
Bhutto knew the risks she was taking by openly campaigning. But she'd said that she believed that most Pakistanis opposed extremism.
In a recent speech, she said: "This great land of ours is not a land of terrorists. It is not a land of militants. It is a land of laborers, who work hard to earn a living."
In her speech Thursday, she said she'd be the "leading light to tackle terrorism."
Bhutto's body was being flown to the south of the country, to her hometown of Larkana, where her father's body is buried in a giant mausoleum. Her controversial husband, Asif Zardari, and their three children flew to Rawalpindi from Dubai, where he's lived in exile. They accompanied the body to Larkana.
Liaquat Bagh, the venue for Thursday's rally, has a grim history. It was where Liaquat Ali Khan, Pakistan's first prime minister, was assassinated in 1951.
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)