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No grand return for Pakistan's Bhutto

The self-exiled former premier has ruled out a political deal with President Musharraf.

By Suzanna KosterCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / May 17, 2007

The prospect of a political deal between Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf and archrival Benazir Bhutto, one of Pakistan's most popular politicians and the self-exiled leader of one of Pakistan's largest democratic parties, now appears dead.

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In an interview on Monday, Ms. Bhutto said that the killing of dozens of citizens in Karachi by a pro-government mob on Saturday has shattered her interest in cooperating with Mr. Musharraf. Such an arrangement, according to rumors, would have lent legitimacy to Musharraf's declining regime while sparing her prosecution from corruption charges. "With 42 people dead in Karachi I just cannot envisage such a thing at this moment," she said. As Bhutto recalled a phone conversation with a boy in Karachi who lost his 18-year-old brother in the shootings, tears appeared in her eyes.

A deal between Musharraf and Bhutto might have been a highly pragmatic solution to ending Pakistan's growing political crisis, Pakistani analysts and Western observers say, because Bhutto brings the patina of democracy, popular support, and international legitimacy to Musharraf's strong arm in dealing with the Taliban. But others worry that Bhutto's deal would essentially bless Musharraf's military dictatorship, effectively splintering opposition to the military regime. Calling off the deal would likely have a dramatic impact on the political landscape, analysts say, encouraging the opposition to bring an organized front to bear against Musharraf as elections loom.

Bhutto heads the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), a moderate opposition party that most analysts say has the largest support of any political group in Pakistan. Elected prime minister twice in 1988 and 1993, she has lived in self-exile since 1999, when Musharraf took power in a bloodless coup and launched a series of corruption cases against her. The daughter of former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who was overthrown and later executed, Bhutto was the first woman to head a post-colonial Muslim state.

At her home in exile, Bhutto admitted that, from the end of last year until the beginning of this year, she has been speaking with the Musharraf government about possible political cooperation. She refused to elaborate, but Pakistani newspapers have speculated for months that Musharraf, faced with the worst crisis of his administration, was looking for a new coalition partner to bail him out.

As part of the rumored arrangement, many have speculated that Musharraf was prepared to drop the corruption charges against Bhutto, allowing her to return to Pakistan as prime minister while he would remain the president, possibly in uniform.

The closure of a wing in the country's National Accountability Bureau last month, which specialized in corruption charges against Bhutto, seemed to indicate that Musharraf had made that concession. But Bhutto, who vehemently denies the allegations, said the charges still stand.

Although she would not go into details, Bhutto says the talks had already been faltering because she distrusted Musharraf's side. She referred to an assassination attempt earlier this year against her sister-in-law, PPP Member of Parliament Azra Zardari. Police refused to file a criminal complaint against a provincial minister and his bodyguards who were accused of the shooting attempt.