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Pakistan's crisis may get a volatile addition: Bhutto

The polarizing ex-leader in exile vows to return in time for elections.

June 13, 2007|Laura King | Times Staff Writer

LARKANA, PAKISTAN — From dawn to dusk, the barefoot pilgrims come. At the tomb of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the former Pakistani prime minister hanged nearly three decades ago by a military dictator, they clasp their hands, scatter flower petals and offer prayers.

Bhutto's daughter Benazir has never seen the elaborate mausoleum that rises 130 feet, like a mirage in heat-shimmered fields of wheat stubble, but she calls it the birthplace of her determination to lead her people, in tribute to her father's memory. And she vows she will do so again, whatever the cost.

With Pakistan racked by political turmoil, Bhutto, herself a former prime minister, says she is making plans to return from exile in London and Dubai, United Arab Emirates, to her homeland and lead her party in elections planned for this fall and next year.

"This year, I will be back," Bhutto, who turns 54 next week, said in an interview conducted at one of her homes. "I don't know what will happen when I return -- prison perhaps, but I will face whatever comes."

After years on the sidelines, Bhutto's new visibility adds a volatile element to the developing power struggle in Pakistan. With President Pervez Musharraf, who took over in a bloodless coup eight years ago, fighting to retain power, Bhutto is widely viewed as the most viable alternative.

The outcome of Pakistan's political crisis will reverberate far beyond its borders. In the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, the devoutly Muslim and strategically located South Asian country emerged as the Bush administration's essential ally in the fight against the Taliban and other Islamic insurgents across the border in Afghanistan. But Pakistan's internal volatility makes that alliance a delicate balancing act.

Bhutto is a universally known but polarizing figure in Pakistan, which she left a decade ago after being removed from office. Some see her as hero and national savior; others remember her corruption-tainted tenure with anger and disgust.

Corruption charges stemming from her years in power are not the only perils awaiting Bhutto should she decide to return. Pakistan remains a deeply conservative society, and an extremist minority bitterly opposes the notion of women in positions of power.

This year, a female provincial government minister was gunned down by a radical self-declared cleric who said women should not hold public office.

"I have many enemies -- I'm a security target," Bhutto acknowledged. "But this is a most critical time for the country."

Bhutto's once-angular beauty has been softened by time, but she remains a regal presence. Radcliffe- and Oxford-educated, she became the Islamic world's first elected female prime minister at 35, after spending nearly 10 years in prison or under house arrest, essentially for being her father's daughter.

Bhutto calls her father's execution in 1979 on the orders of Zia ul-Haq, the army general who overthrew him, the defining moment of her political life.

"I remember so vividly my last visit to his death cell, how he was ready to free me, telling me I was not obliged to follow him in politics," she said. "But it was then that I knew I must."

The Bhutto dynasty lives on in the family's ancestral home of Larkana, a farming town on the heat-blasted plains of Sindh province, 200 miles northeast of Karachi. Posters of father and daughter dot roadsides and street corners. Schools, hospitals and clinics bear their name, and both are spoken of with reverence.

If Larkana is an enduring symbol of family roots and filial piety, it also exemplifies the criticism of Bhutto as an essentially feudal figure.

In her autobiography, "Daughter of the East," she describes the princely family landholdings in the time of the British Raj, when it was possible to drive the main road for hours without leaving Bhutto-owned land.

"Pakistan has many trappings of modernity, but it's in many respects a feudal society. These rural landowners continue to exert tremendous influence," said Robert Hathaway, director of the Asia program at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. "Benazir Bhutto is a product of that system."

Lifelong friends say that although a wealthy childhood left Bhutto with something of an aristocrat's hauteur, her character was shaped by the years after her father's overthrow in 1977, when she endured harsh prison conditions with dignity and courage.

"We had known each other since we were 12 or 13, but that's when I saw this side of her, an incredible strength," said Humaira Aziz, a classmate in Karachi, where she spent much of her childhood.

Aziz, a homeopathic doctor, recalled visiting Bhutto at the family's Karachi home when she was under house arrest. Suddenly they heard the ominous pounding of footsteps as a squadron of police officers came up the walkway.

"She said very calmly, 'Maybe they are here to take me back to prison,' " Aziz said. "And then she said, 'Well, anyway, let's have some coffee.' "

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