KARACHI, Pakistan — President Pervez Musharraf on Wednesday invited Britain's Scotland Yard to help investigate the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, but his effort to defuse widespread suspicions of government complicity seemed unlikely to convince an angry nation.
Making his first national television appearance since Bhutto's slaying last Thursday, the deeply unpopular U.S.-backed strongman also announced a delay — until Feb. 18 — for elections that were to have been held next Tuesday, and used conciliatory rhetoric in reaching out to the political opposition.
Musharraf, who'd previously resisted any form of international investigation, suggested that British police would play only a supporting role in the investigation, saying they'd "help" their Pakistani colleagues.
The British Broadcasting Corp. reported that Scotland Yard was sending only a small team from its counterterrorism branch to support the investigation. It said British detectives were uncertain how much they could achieve since nearly all the forensic evidence at the crime scene has been lost and there's little usable film footage of the attack.
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino indicated that British police would be acting as consultants. "We certainly welcome Pakistan's decision to consult U.K. expertise," she said. She said it was important that a "transparent and comprehensive" investigation proceeded quickly.
Musharraf attempted in his appearance to salvage his sinking popularity by reaching out to Bhutto's Pakistan Peoples Party and the other opposition.
"Benazir Bhutto's mission was to promote democracy and to struggle against extremism and terrorism. I assure you that my mission is exactly the same," asserted the former army chief, who's run the Islamic insurgency-wracked country with an increasingly heavy hand since he took power in a 1999 coup. "This is a time for reconciliation, not confrontation."
Musharraf said troops and paramilitary forces would remain deployed until the elections Feb. 18, and warned opposition groups against increasing the country's "difficulties."
The elections, he said, would be "free, fair, transparent and peaceful."
Bhutto's party and other opposition parties denounced the election delay, contending that it was intended to give the government time to rig the results.
But they agreed to participate, apparently confident that sympathy over Bhutto's death would remain strong enough to sweep them to victory despite their convictions that the vote will be rigged.
"The greatest rigging in the world is where you kill the leader of the party," exclaimed Bhutto's husband, Asif Ali Zardari, who was elevated along with their 19-year-old son to lead the party.
The decision by Bhutto's party and other major opposition groups to take part could help avert more of the violence that paralyzed Pakistan for three days after Bhutto's death.
"People should express their anger through their ballots," Zardari said.
Musharraf, several analysts said, may have bought some breathing space for his ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Q party.
But, they warned, Pakistan remains fraught with resentment of Musharraf, whom President Bush has praised as a key ally in the fight against Islamic extremists.
Analysts said the opposition had reason to fear election-rigging because no party was likely to win a majority in the 342-seat lower house of Parliament.
"This election is going to be rigged," asserted Ikram Sehgl, a defense journal editor and columnist who's known Musharraf for 40 years. "This was a nothing speech about a nothing election."
Widespread suspicions of official complicity have been fueled by shifting government versions of the cause of Bhutto's death that conflicted with video footage showing a gunman firing at her as she stood in the roof hatch of her car and then an explosion.
The government claimed that she died after the blast drove her head into a roof latch. It blamed the attack on an Islamic extremist leader allied with al Qaida and the Taliban.
At this stage, uncovering the perpetrators could be extremely difficult. Police failed to secure the scene to preserve evidence, and Zardari refused to permit an autopsy.
Zardari, who's demanded that the United Nations conduct the inquiry, scoffed at Musharraf's announcement.
He said his wife's death "might not have happened" if Pakistan had requested an international investigation into a failed assassination attempt against Bhutto when she returned in October to campaign for the elections after eight years in exile.
The International Crisis Group, a private conflict-prevention organization, on Wednesday called for Musharraf to step down.
"Stability in Pakistan and its contribution to wider anti-terror efforts now require rapid transition to legitimate civilian government. This must involve the departure of Musharraf, whose continued efforts to retain power at all costs are incompatible with national reconciliation," the organization, which is based in Brussels, Belgium, said in a report.
In Washington, Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, criticized a Pentagon announcement that it will sell 18 F-16 fighter jets to Pakistan for nearly $500 million. U.S. officials have said the jets will be paid for by Pakistan and don't involve American military aid.
Biden, a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, said the sale "sends exactly the wrong message" at a sensitive time. It "is just plain wrong and should be reversed, immediately, until Pakistan returns clearly to the democratic path," he said.
(Warren P. Strobel contributed to this article from Washington.)