By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, October 18, 2007
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates, Oct. 18 -- Former prime minister Benazir Bhutto vowed Wednesday to return to Pakistan on Thursday as scheduled, despite threats of assassination and a suggestion from President Pervez Musharraf that she delay her homecoming.
Bhutto's planned return after eight years of exile comes at a time of immense turmoil in Pakistan, and her impending presence in the country promises to add another layer of uncertainty. Aides predicted that 1 million Pakistanis would gather at the airport in the sprawling city of Karachi to welcome her in a reception expected to last for days.
"My return heralds for the people of Pakistan the turn of the wheel from dictatorship to democracy," Bhutto said at a news conference in Dubai, where she has spent much of her exile.
Bhutto's democratic credentials, however, are being questioned by many in Pakistan, who accuse her of undercutting a once-burgeoning anti-Musharraf movement by negotiating a deal with the general.
Under its terms, Bhutto will not have to face corruption charges that she alleges are politically motivated. In turn, she kept her supporters from boycotting the assemblies earlier this month that elected Musharraf to a new five-year term. Other opposition groups resigned in protest, decrying the election as a farce.
Bhutto has not lived a day in Pakistan under Musharraf, but she could be sharing power with him as soon as January if she succeeds in winning back the prime ministership.
That quest is to begin Thursday with a return that Bhutto hopes will compare favorably to her homecoming in 1986, when approximately 1 million Pakistanis greeted her in the eastern city of Lahore after two years of exile under Gen. Mohammed Zia ul-Haq.
In Karachi, final preparations were underway Wednesday. Supporters were beginning to stream in, and thousands of security personnel had been deployed across the city to guard against possible terrorist attacks. A Taliban leader from the troubled tribal region of South Waziristan, Beitullah Mehsud, has threatened that Bhutto's return will be met with suicide bombers.
Bhutto said Wednesday that she was not afraid and that anyone who attacked her would "burn in hell."
Bhutto has other concerns, as well. Unlike another former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, who was deported four hours after he returned from exile last month, Bhutto will almost certainly be allowed to enter the country. Still, Musharraf has urged Bhutto to delay her trip, citing lingering uncertainty over his election win because the Supreme Court has not yet ruled on a challenge to his candidacy. Hearings in that case began Wednesday.
Local officials in Karachi -- allied with Musharraf -- could make Bhutto's return difficult even if they don't block it. They have already demanded that her supporters take down some of the posters that have been plastered across the city.
After Bhutto lands, she is expected to travel in a special vehicle fortified with bulletproof glass to the tomb of Mohammed Ali Jinnah, Pakistan's founder. The 10-mile journey could take a dozen hours or more, depending on the size of the crowds.
In the days after her return, she is expected to travel north to Larkana, her ancestral home. She is then due to venture into other parts of Pakistan where her support is not nearly as solid.
The tour is likely to mark the kickoff to campaign season, with parliamentary elections due by mid-January.
Bhutto is considerably more popular than Musharraf, who received a meager 21 percent approval rating in a recent opinion poll. At the same time, her dealings with him have damaged her reputation.
Still, for her supporters, Thursday's return will be a long-awaited chance to demonstrate their enthusiasm for a leader who has been at the heart of Pakistani politics for three decades.
"There is a mood for her," said Nisar Khuhro, a provincial leader of Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party in Sindh. "People have had it up to here with this government."
An overnight Emirates Airline flight that ferried dozens of Bhutto supporters from London to Dubai provided a glimpse of what's to come later on Thursday. The flight turned into an impromptu rally when women waving the red, black and green flags of the People's Party and men bedecked with party ribbons stood up from their seats and began chanting "Long live Bhutto!" and "Prime Minister Benazir!"
Flight attendants and passengers unaffiliated with the party shouted back in an unsuccessful attempt to get them to sit down.
Near the end of the flight, one exuberant party member passed out drunk in the aisle, murmuring Bhutto's name as he went down.
Bhutto left her home in Dubai early Thursday, bound for the airport.
Special correspondent Shahzad Khurram in Karachi contributed to this report.