- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto said yesterday that she is determined to return home next month after nearly a decade in exile, even though “extremist sympathizers” of President Pervez Musharraf continue to block a power-sharing deal.

Mrs. Bhutto, who served two turbulent terms as prime minister in the late 1980s and 1990s, told a Capitol Hill gathering that she will fly to her hometown of Karachi on Oct. 18, even though a political agreement between Gen. Musharraf and her Pakistan People’s Party that would allow her to run for prime minister in November is still up in the air.

“I do not know what awaits me personally or politically once I am in the airport” in Karachi, Mrs. Bhutto said. “I am praying for the best while I do prepare for the worst, but in any case I am going home.”

Nawaz Sharif, another two-time prime minister who was exiled when Gen. Musharraf seized power in a 1999 military coup, spent just a few hours on the ground in Pakistan when he tried to return to the country earlier this month. The government swiftly deported Mr. Sharif to Saudi Arabia.

Mrs. Bhutto also faces legal problems stemming from corruption charges dating back to her terms in office.

Speaking at a forum organized by the Middle East Institute, Mrs. Bhutto said the United States is making a “strategic miscalculation” in backing Gen. Musharraf’s military rule in hopes that he can crack down on Islamist militant groups and Taliban forces operating in the country’s lawless regions bordering Afghanistan.

“In fact, military dictatorship has fueled extremism in Pakistan,” she said. “My nation has become the petri dish of international extremist movements.”

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in a rare direct rebuke of Islamabad on Monday, criticized the Musharraf government’s roundup of dozens of opposition-party workers to head off planned protests at the Supreme Court and central election office ahead of the planned Oct. 6 presidential vote.

But State Department spokesman Tom Casey yesterday said in response to Mrs. Bhutto’s remarks, that the primary U.S. interest was for free and fair elections in Pakistan and that the issues surrounding Mrs. Bhutto’s return and Gen. Musharraf’s political future “need to be addressed by the Pakistanis themselves.”

Gen. Musharraf yesterday signed his nomination papers for re-election, but he faces constitutional and political hurdles to a fresh five-year term as president while retaining his power base as army chief of staff.

The country’s Supreme Court is expected to rule imminently on whether the general can remain in uniform while running for political office. An attorney for Gen. Musharraf said he plans to remain as army chief if he is not re-elected president.

Mrs. Bhutto yesterday sketched out a tentative deal under which her party would abstain on the presidential vote — clearing the way for a Musharraf victory in return for concessions that would force the general to leave the army and clear away any legal hurdles to a run by Mrs. Bhutto for prime minister in the subsequent parliamentary elections.

She said Gen. Musharraf appears ready to compromise but is being hampered by Islamist party allies in his government, who, Mrs. Bhutto says, stand to be the big losers in any new parliamentary vote.

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