Bhutto Urges Action by Musharraf

In New York, Benazir Bhutto said her party has been negotiating with President Pervez Musharraf for almost a year on terms for her return to active politics in Pakistan in exchange for supporting his rule. "Time is running out," she said. (By Mary Altaffer -- Associated Press)
By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, August 16, 2007

NEW YORK, Aug. 15 -- Pakistan's exiled opposition leader, Benazir Bhutto, expressed frustration on Wednesday with political negotiations with the country's military ruler, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, but said she still plans to return to the country "later this year."

Speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations here, Bhutto said that her Pakistan People's Party has been engaged in negotiations with Musharraf "for almost a year" and that she is seeking to return to active politics in exchange for her support of Musharraf. She gave the president until the end of this month to take what she called "confidence-building measures" to keep the dialogue going.

"Time is running out," Bhutto said. "Is it just talk, or is it going to turn into a walk?" She said it was important to conclude the negotiations this month because "we are risking our popularity even by having this dialogue."

Bhutto and Musharraf are longtime rivals. But Musharraf's position has been significantly weakened in recent months, and he is now fighting for his political survival.

In her speech and in answering questions from the audience, Bhutto did not specify the measures she wanted Musharraf to take. But afterward, she said in an interview that she was demanding he lift restrictions on political party leaders such as herself and that he grant "indemnity for all parliamentarians and for all holders of public office."

"For us and him to work together, there have to be these gestures," Bhutto said.

Bhutto is facing graft charges in Pakistan stemming from her two terms as prime minister, in 1988-90 and 1993-96. In April, Musharraf disbanded the special anti-corruption unit investigating Bhutto, but the charges have not all been formally dropped. Bhutto called the charges against her politically motivated. "The charges are concocted to put the political class on the defensive," she said.

In her speech, Bhutto was strongly critical of Musharraf's military rule, which she called "unaccountable, unrepresentative, undemocratic and disconnected from the ordinary people in the country."

She blamed Musharraf for the "failure to stop the Taliban and al-Qaeda reorganizing after they were defeated," and she said his military rule was responsible for the growth of Islamic extremism in Pakistan, because moderate democratic voices have been stifled. She accused Musharraf of "a very bloody suppression of people's human rights."

"I seek to lead a democratic Pakistan that is free from the yoke of military dictatorship," she said.

Despite her harsh critique, Bhutto said she is willing to work with Musharraf. "Pakistan is not an ordinary country and it is not facing an ordinary situation now," she said when asked how she could justify dealing with Musharraf. "We have problems with General Musharraf because he is a coup leader," she said. "But General Musharraf has committed Pakistan to following a moderate path." She said the fault line between moderation and extremism in Pakistan was as grave a threat to the country as that between dictatorship and democracy.

Analysts said Bhutto may be forced to work with Musharraf if she wants to return to active politics this year. "She doesn't have any choice," said Marvin G. Weinbaum, scholar-in-residence at the Middle East Institute in Washington and a former Pakistan analyst at the State Department. "The military's not going to disappear from the picture."

But analysts said Bhutto risked undermining her strength as an opposition leader if she embraced the president too closely. "She would like to go back, and she needs to get some promises of security," said Daniel Markey, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. "She's playing a pretty dangerous game, with the potential that it could backfire on her."

He added, "If there is a deal, she has to still be an opposition figure. She has to be a critic of Musharraf, but at the same time be willing to work with him. That's a tough balancing act."

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