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Pakistan Postpones National Elections

Qazi Mohammad Farooq in Islamabad on January 2 (epa) The head of Pakistan's Election Commission has announced the postponement of parliamentary elections until February 18, following last week's assassination of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto.

At a news conference in Islamabad, Qazi Mohammad Farooq promised that the poll would be "fair, free, and transparent." He appealed to all parties to accept the delay and participate in the ballot.

Earlier, Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party (PPP), now led by her husband Asif Ali Zardari and their 19-year-old son Bilawal, had come out strongly in favor of holding the poll on January 8, as originally scheduled.

Zardari told supporters on January 1 that fellow opposition leader Nawaz Sharif "joins me in this sentiment that the elections should not be postponed."

After initial uncertainty about whether to favor an election delay, there has been strong sentiment among the Pakistani opposition that they would benefit from a powerful sympathy vote -- if balloting were held as scheduled.

They have expressed fears that President Pervez Musharraf could use any delay to manipulate the situation.

The United States and other Western allies also had urged Musharraf to press ahead with the election on January 8 -- aimed at restoring democracy to the country.

But the situation remains complicated, and the logistics of holding the elections on time would have been daunting.

During the riots that followed Bhutto's death, many election offices in the southern province of Sindh, Bhutto's political stronghold, were destroyed by angry mobs.

Ballot boxes and the printing of ballot papers, as well as their delivery around the country, have also been disrupted.

The postelection scenario remains equally murky. If the PPP wins the ballot, it is unclear whom they would propose as prime minister. Zardari faces numerous corruption allegations and investigations while Bilawal is too young to run for office.

The party's deputy chairman, Makhdoom Amin Fahim, has been suggested as a possibility.

Later, in a televised address to the nation, President Musharraf called for unity in the wake of Bhutto's assassination. He said Pakistanis must come together to combat the forces of terrorism and extremism.

He blamed Al-Qaeda-linked militants for Bhutto's death, which he promised would be fully investigated. Musharraf said he had requested British police from Scotland Yard to assist in the investigation.

Pakistan's president also said the army and paramilitary forces would be deployed to ensure peaceful parliamentary elections.