Bhutto Working Toward National Unity Government

By Emily Wax and Howard Schneider
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, November 15, 2007; 9:17 AM

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Nov. 15 -- Former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto said on Thursday she is trying to form a national unity government that could take over from President Pervez Musharraf before elections in January, providing an "exit strategy" for the current crisis that would maintain stability and reassure allies nervous about the fate of the country's nuclear arsenal.

Her comments to the Associated Press wire service came as the United States laid the groundwork for a Friday mission to Pakistan by Deputy Secretary of State John D. Negroponte, who is expected to urge Musharraf to lift the state of emergency he imposed earlier this month and restore civil liberties before the January parliamentary vote.

Bryan Hunt, the U.S. consul general in Lahore, visited Bhutto on Thursday in the residence where she is being held under house arrest, and afterwards said he told her that the United States agrees that Pakistan needs "to move as rapidly as possible to have free and fair elections," the AP reported.

The term of Pakistan's current government expires on Thursday, and it also would have been the final day of Musharraf's current stint in office had he not extended it by declaring emergency rule on Nov. 3. He was expected to appoint an interim government later Thursday to hold office until the Jan. 9 parliamentary vote.

According to the AP, Bhutto said Hunt had asked whether there was still a chance she and Musharraf could work together. She said she told him it would be "very difficult to work with someone who instead of taking us toward democracy took us back toward military dictatorship."

Bhutto said she hoped her current talks with other opposition parties would produce "an interim government of national consensus to whom power can be handed," the AP reported.

Pakistani authorities on Wednesday continued their crackdown on Musharraf's opponents, arresting former cricket star Imran Khan, one of the last major opposition leaders to remain at large since the military-led government declared emergency rule and began widespread detentions. A former ambassador to the United States, Abida Hussain, was also arrested. (Live Q&A with Hussain, 11 a.m. ET)

Khan, of the Pakistan Justice Movement, has wide support among student activists in Pakistan and had been in hiding since the emergency was imposed Nov. 3. He was seized one day after former prime minister Benazir Bhutto was placed under house arrest in Lahore. Another former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, was deported from Pakistan two months ago, hours after he returned from exile.

On Wednesday, Bhutto intensified her attempts to reach out to disparate opposition figures, including Sharif, whose elected government was overthrown in the 1999 coup that elevated Musharraf to the presidency.

Bhutto had held quiet power-sharing negotiations with Musharraf for several months. But on Tuesday, she declared that she would not work with him and suggested that her Pakistan People's Party would boycott parliamentary elections in January.

"I am now working with all political leaders, including Nawaz Sharif. We feel all the political forces should come together," Bhutto said in a telephone interview Wednesday. "We may work together or we may work side by side. The issue is that we both agree there should be democracy. The important thing is that Pakistan is returned to its people, that martial law is ended, that General Musharraf steps down."

The president, meanwhile, pleaded his case with foreign news outlets, saying that Pakistan risked chaos if he were to resign. He would not say when emergency rule would end, but did tell the Associated Press that he expects to step down as army chief by the end of the month and serve his next presidential term as a civilian.

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