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Great leader will be missed

Try to imagine a young Pakistani woman bounding into the newsroom of the Harvard Crimson in the early 1970s and banging out stories about college sports teams with the passion of a cub reporter. That was the first glimpse some of us had of Benazir Bhutto. We had no idea she was Pakistani political royalty. She was too busy jumping into her future to make a show of her past.

I saw this effervescent woman many times over subsequent years, and I never lost the sense of her as an impetuous person embracing what was new - for herself and for her nation. I remember encountering her once when she was a graduate student at Oxford, shaking up the august and occasionally somnolent Oxford Union debating society as its president. She was wearing a Rolling Stones T-shirt, the one with the sassy tongue sticking out, and I recall thinking that Pakistani politics would never be the same once she returned home.

In later years, I would see her during her periodic visits to Washington after she assumed her family's mantle of political leadership and became prime minister in 1988, at the age of 35. She changed in her outward appearance, wearing a head scarf and traditional clothes as she matured, but not in her inner passion for change.

Bhutto was fearless, from her college years in America to her cruel assassination Thursday. She had an unshakable belief that Pakistan should embrace the modern world with the same confidence and courage that she had. She believed in democracy, freedom and openness - not as slogans, but as a way of life. She wasn't perfect; the corruption charges that enveloped her second term as prime minister were all too real. But she remained the most potent Pakistani voice for liberalism, tolerance and change.

A less determined person would have backed off when her conservative Muslim enemies tried to kill her after she returned home last October. But Bhutto had crossed that bridge a long time ago. She was a person who, for all her breeding and cultivation, ran headlong at life. Her father and two brothers had died for their vision of a country where Islam and the modern world made an accommodation. Her only real fear, I think, was that she might fail in her mission.

Her assassination was, as President Bush said Thursday, a "cowardly act." It was a defining act of the politics of murder - a phenomenon that we see from Lebanon to Iraq to Pakistan. If we forget, with the passage of time, the face of the Muslim extremism responsible for Sept. 11, 2001, here is a reminder: Bhutto's killers targeted her because she was modern, liberal and unafraid.

In the immediate aftermath of Bhutto's killing, many people feel an instinctive anger at her political rival, President Pervez Musharraf. We will have to wait for the facts, but my first reaction is that blaming Musharraf is a mistake. He has battled the same Muslim extremists who appear to have taken Bhutto's life. He has faced nine assassination attempts himself, by CNN's count. He angered Bhutto and her liberal supporters in part because he argued that Pakistani politics was still so violent and volatile that the army should impose emergency controls.

Bhutto's death is a brutal demonstration of the difficulty for outsiders in understanding - let alone tinkering with - a country like Pakistan. The Bush administration attempted a bit of political engineering when it tried to broker an alliance between Musharraf and Bhutto, and sought to position her as the country's next prime minister. Thursday's events were a reminder that global politics is not Prospero's island, where we can conjure up the outcomes we want. In places like Pakistan, where we can't be sure where events are heading, the wisest course for the United States is the cautious one of trying to identify and protect American interests. Pakistanis will decide how and when the country makes its accommodation with the modern world.

I think Bhutto was right about the future - that the path to a more stable Pakistan requires precisely the democratic reforms that she advocated. Musharraf and the army have tried to govern from too narrow and unstable a base; that's their mistake and their weakness. But Thursday's assassination of this brave woman is a warning that the path to the modern Pakistan she dreamed of creating won't be easy.

The best memorial for Bhutto - and also the right transition for this nation in turmoil - is to go ahead with the elections set for early January. Bhutto wasn't afraid of that tumultuous and sometimes deadly process of change, nor should anyone be.

David Ignatius can be reached at davidignatius@washpost.com.