ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — The top official of Pakistan's most populous province, an outspoken critic of religious extremism, was assassinated Tuesday in Islamabad by one of his own police bodyguards, plunging the country vital to the U.S. fight against terrorism deeper into political turmoil.
Punjab Governor Salman Taseer, who's been battling Islamists after he denounced a law against blasphemy, was killed on a road in the center of the Pakistani capital.
His slaying came as the ruling coalition led by the secular Pakistan Peoples Party, the PPP, was in danger of collapse after losing its parliamentary majority amid a growing economic crisis, including a sudden rise in fuel prices and extensive power shortages.
The turbulence couldn't come at a worse time for the Obama administration, diverting Pakistani political and military leaders from what Washington had hoped would be an intensified drive to shutter Afghan insurgent strongholds and al Qaida-allied bases on Pakistan's side of the rugged border with Afghanistan.
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Given the depth of anti-American sentiments in Pakistan, however, there is little the U.S. can do, several analysts said.
"It's a situation where anything that we might do would be counter-productive," said Marvin Weinbaum, a former State Department intelligence analyst with the Middle East Institute in Washington.
Taseer, 66, was the most senior Pakistani politician murdered since former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in December 2007. The governor, the president's representative in a province, is a high profile but largely ceremonial position.
He was leaving a cafe in an upscale market in central Islamabad popular with foreigners and wealthy Pakistanis at around 4 p.m. when he was felled in a hail of bullets, officials and witnesses said.
Ali Khan, a 24-year-old student who was dining close to the scene, told McClatchy that he heard several bursts of gunfire. When he got to the road, he saw two uniformed men lying on the ground, one being restrained by other police officers and the other apparently injured.
Interior Minister Rehman Malik identified Taseer's killer as Mumtaz Hussain Qadri, a 26-year-old police commando from a suburb of Islamabad who served as one of Taseer's bodyguards as a member of the Elite Force, a provincial anti-terrorist unit.
Qadri put down his weapon and surrendered after the shooting, Malik told reporters.
"We will have to see if he (Qadri) was acting on his own or as part of a group," he said.
Separately, local TV channels broadcast video of a restrained Qadri sitting in the back of a police truck, and later at a detention facility, calmly admitting that he had killed Taseer.
"Salman Taseer is a blasphemer, and this is the punishment for a blasphemer," Qadri said.
Qadri's said he killed Taseer, a charismatic senior PPP member who was close to President Asif Ali Zardari, Bhutto's husband, because of Taseer's calls for changes to a law that makes blasphemy a crime punishable by death.
Taseer "wanted to bring a revolution in Pakistan that would allow people to live their lives as they wished," Faisal Raza Abidi, a PPP member of the upper house of Parliament, said outside the hospital where Taseer's body was brought. "This bloodshed will strengthen us. We are all ready to die."
But Weinbaum said he thought that Taseer's assassination would dissuade other politicians from speaking out against the law.
Taseer "had shown enormous courage and in that sense stood out alone here," Weinbaum said. "The party (PPP) was not with him. If this could only encourage others. But unfortunately, it will probably have the opposite effect, and those who should stand up will stay down."
The blasphemy law was introduced by a military dictator in the 1980s, and Islamic parties oppose changing it. Secular politicians, human rights groups and other critics charge that the laws are vague and are abused to settle vendettas or persecute religious minorities, about 5 percent of Pakistan's 169 million people. Numerous minorities have been convicted and sentenced to die under the law, but no executions have ever taken place.
Taseer had championed the case of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman condemned to death under the blasphemy law late last year, visiting her in jail and calling the statute a "black law." The case ignited calls for reform of the law but also an Islamist backlash. The outcry and his party's political woes prompted Zardari to retreat from a previous commitment to amend the statute.
A wave of religiosity and intolerance, gathering pace since the 1980s, has put public opinion in a straitjacket where any criticism of hard-line views is dangerous. In 2009, an Islamic cleric who'd condemned suicide bombing was killed by a suicide attacker, while Bhutto was earlier assassinated during an election campaign in which she denounced extremism.
Militants also revile the government for aligning Pakistan with the U.S. following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and have pursued a relentless campaign of assassinations and bombings against government officials and security personnel.
Taseer had regularly criticized religious extremists as a minority that terrorized a cowered majority. He expressed his blunt views on Twitter, saying in a tweet last month: "Covered in the righteous cloak of religion and even a puny dwarf imagines himself a monster. Important to face. And call their bluff."
Taseer, a successful businessman, had been a PPP activist since the 1970s and had been jailed by military regimes.
Small demonstrations erupted in the provincial capital of Lahore and in towns across Punjab after his slaying, with tires burned and shops closed down, while the government announced three days of official mourning.
The assassination shook the PPP-led coalition shortly after it received another blow in the form of an ultimatum from opposition leader Nawaz Sharif, who gave the government 72 hours after the end of the mourning period to dismiss ministers accused of corruption and reverse an increase in gasoline prices.
Otherwise, Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-N could support a no-confidence motion against Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani, who was left 12 seats short of a majority last weekend when a coalition partner, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, announced it was joining the opposition.
"We have to find a way of getting Pakistan out of this tunnel," Sharif told a news conference in Islamabad.
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent. Landay reported from Washington)MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
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