US President George W. Bush on Thursday strongly condemned the "cowardly" assassination of Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto and urged the key US ally to stay on the democratic path.
"The US strongly condemns this cowardly act by murderous extremists who are trying to undermine Pakistan's democracy," Bush told reporters hours after Bhutto was killed in the Pakistani city of Rawalpindi.
"Those who committed this crime must be brought to justice," he said near his ranch in Texas where he is spending the end-of-year holidays.
"We stand with the people of Pakistan in that struggle against the forces of terror and extremism."
Bush called on Pakistanis to stay on the path of democracy after their president, Pervez Musharraf, ended six weeks of emergency rule ahead of elections that are due to be held in the country on January 8.
"We urge them to honor Benazir Bhutto's memory by continuing with a democratic process," he said.
The suicide attack at a rally for Bhutto in Rawalpindi left at least 16 other people dead and raised new questions about Pakistan's stability under President Pervez Musharraf ahead of elections on January 8.
"We obviously condemn the attack that shows that there are people out there who are trying to disrupt the building of democracy in Pakistan," said Deputy State Department spokesman Tom Casey.
Washington has been taking a cautious line toward its key ally in the war on terror, particularly after Musharraf imposed emergency rule from November 3 to December 15 and cracked down on his opposition.
The moves prompted both a review of US aid to Pakistan and a broader debate on its status as an ally, but Bush's administration has stayed upbeat toward Musharraf.
"He has been a good ally in the war on terror ... (but) it was not a good decision to impose a state of emergency," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told AFP last week.
"He's lifted the state of emergency. He's taken off the (army) uniform. And now I hope that he is going to oversee the return of Pakistan to a civilian-led democratic state," she said.
US officials have insisted on the need to ensure free and fair elections next month but have shied away from speculating on what they would do if the polls turned out to be rigged in any way.
But the Bush administration was also facing a restive US Congress, which sought to slap restrictions on military aid to Pakistan, a nuclear power along with its subcontinent rival India.
Lawmakers moved to put limits on 300 million dollars of US military aid received each year by Pakistan.
In the past, Pakistan enjoyed free rein to use the funds, but under a catch-all budget bill passed by Congress last week, 250 million dollars of those funds now are to be used strictly for counter-terrorism operations.
Congress stipulated that the remaining 50 million dollars were to be withheld until the Bush administration demonstrates that Pakistan is making clear moves toward democracy.
US Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher on Thursday downplayed the rift with lawmakers, and told reporters he was confident that Rice soon would be able to report that Pakistan is headed back toward full democracy.
Adding fuel to the issue, the New York Times reported this week that billions of dollars in US aid to Pakistan never reached the military units it was intended for to fight Al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Much of the money meant to reimburse frontline Pakistani units was channeled to weapons systems aimed at India and to pay inflated Pakistani reimbursement claims for fuel, ammunition and other costs, the Times said.