Pakistani politics has always been drenched in blood. Never an easy country to govern, today Pakistan is suffering from terrorism, tribal feuds, civil unrest and extremism. And Bhutto's killing has only increased the tensions.

Political violence has been an integral part of Pakistan's troubled history since the country's bloody inception 60 years ago.

But the murder of former prime minister and leader of the Pakistan Peoples Party Benazir Bhutto in a suicide attack on Thursday at the end of an election rally in Rawalpindi may come to represent a watershed in that country's struggle to restore its fledgling democracy. Bhutto's tragic death has ended the journey for one of Pakistan's most controversial political dynasties.

Regardless of who carried out the assassination, it is clear that an eventful year in the country's history has reached a troubling climax.

A self-proclaimed opponent of extremists, the pro-western Bhutto, who made a triumphant return from exile few months ago, was aware of the high stakes involving her fresh bid for power. There were other foes as well.

She walked a tightrope as she negotiated a fragile deal with then General Pervez Musharraf, the country's military dictator. As head of the largest party, the charismatic politician was accused of colluding with Musharraf by her traditional political rival Nawaz Sharif, who was also making his own political comeback after seven years in exile.

Having lifted a one-and-a-half-month state of emergency after securing himself as a civilian president, Musharraf was bowing to domestic and international pressures to bring Pakistan back on the road of democracy.

Bhutto was seen as an instrumental figure in launching that process. Her chances of winning a third term as Pakistan's prime minister in the upcoming elections, barring major rigging by the government, appeared water-tight.

But now with her death the chips have fallen and the country is once again staring into the face of turmoil and chaos.

Pakistan has never been so polarised by a lethal combination of divisive politics, tribal tensions and religious extremism.

In addition, it is considered a spearhead in America's war on terror and a gateway to troubled Afghanistan. More importantly, it is a nuclear power whose instability haunts neighbouring India and the world at large.

Birthplace of extremism

Unlike India, Pakistan has had a checkered history of military rule punctuated by tenuous spates of democratic government. A country of more than 160 million inhabitants, it has traditionally been a close US ally especially during the Cold War.

But it is also regarded, along with Afghanistan, as the birthplace of jihadist movements including Al Qaida and the Taliban. In fact it was under Pakistani intelligence auspices, the Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI), that the Taliban movement was created and nurtured.

Pakistani politics has always been drenched in blood. Never an easy country to govern, today it is suffering from terrorism, tribal feuds, civil unrest and extremism.

Poverty and unemployment have been endemic and the country's human development indicators are dismal. Even during the short democratic spells, governments, including Bhutto's, were accused of rampant corruption and gross mismanagement.

While the West, in particular America, supported the recent drive to restore democracy in Pakistan, it nevertheless cohabited with the country's military rulers including generals Zia-ul-Haq and Musharraf.

In the aftermath of Bhutto's killing and the challenges that will result it is not unlikely that Washington may alter its present course on restoring democracy and throw its weight behind Musharraf, who still appears to have control over the army.

Pakistan's president, on the other hand, finds himself facing a predicament. He must control the civil unrest that will sweep the country for weeks if not more following Bhutto's murder.

At the same time, he cannot afford to let the killing of the most prominent political figure in Pakistani politics pass without a stern response.

He knows that he will have to take charge, especially in the face of militant forces, to prevent chaos. His choices are dire and his next move will to decide the fate of the 8 January elections.

It is interesting that a week before Bhutto's killing US Secretary of Defence Robert Gates warned Al Qaida had shifted its attention from Afghanistan to Pakistan. He said the terror group "now seems to have turned its face towards Pakistan and attacks on the Pakistani government and Pakistani people".

Could Bhutto's murder, which was preceded by a series of bloody suicide bombings across the country including an attack on a rally attended by Sharif on that same day, be the work of Al Qaida?

Such a scenario cannot be discounted and if the next battlefield in the war on terror is moving to Pakistan, then the future of democracy in that country will be in doubt and Bhutto's liquidation will mark the beginning of a bloody cycle that will claim many innocent lives.

Osama Al Sharif is a Jordanian journalist based in Amman.