- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 8, 2007

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - Under growing pressure to restore democracy, President Gen. Pervez Musharraf appears to be trying to reach a deal with the exiled former prime minister who heads Pakistan’s largest political party.

The latest indication of Gen. Musharraf’s softening stance toward former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was the announcement late last week that a veteran anti-corruption investigator who pursued cases against Mrs. Bhutto was being transferred to a job in provincial administration.

It was not clear whether the move could ease Mrs. Bhutto’s legal troubles or was purely symbolic. Still, it fanned speculation that a weakened Gen. Musharraf, a key ally in the U.S. war on terror, may sanction her return if it helps him hang on to power.

Mrs. Bhutto, leader of the Pakistan People’s Party, is agitating for Gen. Musharraf to close the cases against her so that she can return in time to campaign in parliamentary elections, due around the end of the year.

The general is under increasing international pressure to make Pakistan’s government more democratic, eight years after he seized power in a bloodless coup.

Protests triggered by his suspension of Pakistan’s top judge threaten his popularity, and analysts say his need for new political allies increase the likelihood of a deal with Mrs. Bhutto and another exiled former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif.

Commentators have speculated that Gen. Musharraf could accept a Bhutto-led government if it backs his presidency and changes to the constitution that have given him sweeping powers and formalized the military’s pervasive role in Pakistani politics.

Members of Mrs. Bhutto’s party recently confirmed that they were in contact with government representatives.

And, asked last month about a possible reconciliation, Gen. Musharraf appeared open-minded, pointedly not ruling out the possibility.

“The scenario after the 2007 election is very important, very serious. It’s a question of Pakistan’s future,” he told the Geo television channel.

Railways Minister Sheik Rashid Ahmed confirmed reports that Hassan Wasim Afzal, a senior official at the National Accountability Bureau, had been transferred. The news ran on the front page of the Lahore-based Daily Times under the headline “First sign of BB-Musharraf thaw.”

Mr. Ahmed, a staunch Musharraf supporter, said on television that Mr. Afzal’s removal was “a very important turn.” He also said that back-channel negotiations with Mrs. Bhutto looked promising, but he provided no details.

Mrs. Bhutto, who was elected prime minister in the 1980s and 1990s, has been living in London and the United Arab Emirates since 1999, when she left Pakistan to avoid arrest on charges of graft said to have occurred during her tenure. She denies the charges and says they are politically motivated.

Gen. Musharraf, who ousted Mr. Sharif in 1999, is expected to seek re-election as president from the outgoing legislature.

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