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Biden raises security questions

From NBC/NJ's Carrie Dann
DES MOINES, Iowa -- If there's a safe space between politics and policy, Biden stayed in it until the last question of the day. A somber Biden appeared this morning at a hastily assembled press conference to address the assassination of Pakistani political figure Benazir Bhutto.

Calling her death "a genuine tragedy," the senator called for a transparent investigation into the attack and said that he had twice asked Pakistan's president to provide better protection to the slain Bhutto.

"This fall," he told reporters, "I twice urged President Musharraf to provide her with better security." He added, "The failure to protect Mrs. Bhutto raises a lot of hard questions for the government and the security services that have to be answered."

Asked if his statement implied that Musharraf's government may have been negligent or even complicit in Bhutto's assassination, Biden responded that he cannot comment on any blame to be laid at the feet of the Pakistani government without knowing all the facts of the attack.

"Even if the security was not as I specifically recommended, it's not rational to draw the conclusion that the government wanted to see her assassinated," he said.

According to copies distributed by his staff, Biden, along with Senate colleagues Patrick Leahy and Joe Lieberman, drafted a letter to Musharraf to urge greater security precautions for Bhutto in October, just a few days after the first attempt on her life after her return to Pakistan.

Biden went on to note that Musharraf's cooperation with a U.S.-assisted investigation effort, and his subsequent allowance of democratic elections in the country, will be the best indicator of his government's intentions. "I don't want to pass judgment on it," he said. "Let's see how this investigation proceeds."

Biden, unlike Democratic rival Richardson, says that he is not calling for Musharraf to step down "at this moment," but added that he will increase pressure on the Pakistani leader if he drags his feet in the process of holding free and fair elections.

Reporters asked how turmoil in Pakistan might affect the Democratic race in the waning days before the caucus.  

"I am a candidate, obviously," he said quietly, shaking his head. "But I am standing here before you today as the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee."  

But, pressed further by reporters despite calls of  'Last Question!" from his staff, Biden acknowledged that his roles as candidate and foreign relations authority are hard to separate. "I would be holding this press conference were I not a candidate for president," he said.  "I doubt there are any of the other candidates who would be holding a press conferences were they not candidates."

"That's not a criticism," he added. "It's an observation."