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U.S. still hopes for accord in Pakistan

Times Staff Writers

President Pervez Musharraf successfully thwarted a demonstration Friday by former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, encircling her home for hours with riot police, barbed wire and metal barricades, but U.S. officials still held out hope the two could strike a power-sharing agreement.

The latest turn of events appear to have put Bhutto and her Pakistan People’s Party on a collision course with Musharraf, who suspended the constitution and imposed emergency rule a week ago, about two weeks after Bhutto returned to Pakistan from self-imposed exile.

But many here and in Washington believe that she hasn’t completely abandoned the notion of some form of political partnership with the military leader.

Bhutto’s confinement order was lifted shortly before midnight and today she left her house at midday to meet with party leaders. She had spent Friday behind barricades and before cameras, pleading with police to let her out so she could lead the demonstration against emergency rule. Surrounded by female lawmakers and party members, she appealed to black- bereted police blocking her white Land Cruiser: “Get out of the way. We are your sisters.”

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Some commentators said the temporary confinement worked in Bhutto’s favor, boosting her credibility as an opposition figure, yet burning no real bridges with the general.

“I don’t think she lost anything by what happened; in a sense she gained because it enhanced her defiant image,” said Arif Rafiq, a U.S.-based policy consultant and editor of the Pakistan Policy Blog.

The White House, which counts Pakistan as a crucial ally in the war against Al Qaeda and the Taliban, gingerly sought to keep up pressure on Musharraf. The Bush administration called for the release of political figures and “peaceful protesters who have been detained.”

Bhutto had planned to lead a rally Friday of tens of thousands of supporters in Rawalpindi, a city adjacent to Islamabad, the capital. Rawalpindi is the headquarters of the Pakistani military, which Musharraf leads.

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But police moved in before she could leave, sealing off the cul-de-sac in Islamabad where her residence is located, rolling out barbed wire, erecting metal barricades and setting up ranks of riot police three rows thick. A bomb-squad vehicle stood by, as did ambulances and armored personnel carriers.

In Rawalpindi, 10 miles away, police locked the giant iron gates of Liaquat Park, the planned site of the demonstration, and set up roadblocks, sealing the city from busloads of Bhutto supporters. By midday, roads to the park were blocked, using empty buses and the riotously painted trucks that ply Pakistani highways.

By late afternoon -- the appointed time for the rally -- police were clashing with the few hundred people who managed to slip through the cordon, beating and tear-gassing scattered groups of Bhutto supporters. Groups of motorcycle police roared up and down the all-but-deserted thoroughfares in a show of force.

Back at her Islamabad residence, Bhutto tried twice to breach the police barricades around her home.

“My father laid down his life for you and this nation,” she called out to the police officers, who refused to yield. Bhutto’s father, Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, was deposed and hanged by a previous military ruler in 1979, and remains a source of much of the reverence in which Benazir Bhutto is held.

Pakistani authorities said the Rawalpindi gathering, like all large rallies, was banned under the emergency declaration. They also cited the threat of suicide bombings if the demonstration went ahead. Interior Ministry spokesman Javed Iqbal Cheema said more than one suicide bomber was poised to strike the gathering.

Some Pakistani analysts said the government decision may have benefited Bhutto by ensuring that she could not be held even indirectly responsible for any bloodshed that might have occurred.

There was a suicide bombing, but it occurred about 90 miles to the northwest of Rawalpindi. A bomber struck the home of a government minister in the frontier city of Peshawar, killing four people. Activity by Islamic militants has surged in the volatile North-West Frontier Province during the days of emergency rule, which Musharraf said was imposed in order to help the government battle militants.

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Critics said the decree was aimed at a broad spectrum of political foes, not the militants. Thousands of opposition party leaders, lawyers and human rights activists have been arrested, including Bhutto supporters rounded up during the night before the planned rally.

Some party officials put the number of those rounded up as high as 5,000.

The government’s harsh actions came a day after Musharraf, apparently bowing to pressure from the United States and other Western governments, said he would hold parliamentary elections by mid-February, a month later than scheduled. Bhutto called his promise “vague” and demanded that Musharraf relinquish his post as head of the military in the coming week, as he had previously promised to do.

Bhutto has so far avoided ruling out talks with the general once the emergency provisions are lifted. But as the confrontation between the two sharpens, the strong sentiments of her core supporters may soon leave her with little choice but to renounce any future deal with him.

“As I see it, she is on one side, and he is on the other,” said Abdul Sattar, a mechanic who traveled to Rawalpindi before dawn to ensure he would obey Bhutto’s call to supporters to come to the rally “at all costs.”

Political analyst Nasim Zehra summed it up: “Let’s say that after today, it is 80% likely that she cannot work with him,” she said. “But there is still that 20% of possibility. In the end, he needs her, and she needs him.”

U.S. officials said they believed the two could still form an alliance of moderates, and that Washington was pushing toward that goal.

The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity when describing internal government deliberations, said they believed it had become increasingly difficult for Bhutto to remain muted in her criticism of Musharraf -- as she was for much of the week -- while members of her party grew increasingly embittered with the president.

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The American officials said they were in contact with Pakistani leaders of all points of view, and that while Washington continued to support Musharraf -- whose alliance with the U.S. has been a mixed blessing for both sides -- that could begin to shift.

“If the Pakistani people don’t see changes, it’s going to become more and more difficult for us to support him,” one official said, stressing the importance of restoring constitutional freedoms and holding elections. “Obviously, his credibility is coming into question about whether he’s going to do what he said.”

U.S. officials have taken care to offer what amounts to firm guidance, while avoiding ultimatums or measures that would cut off assistance to Pakistan.

Gordon D. Johndroe, spokesman for the National Security Council, said military assistance to counter extremism “is absolutely in the best interest of the United States.” Other U.S. aid is intended to help the people of Pakistan through education and health programs, he added.

“The ultimate goal is not to punish the people of Pakistan; it’s to help them get back on a path to democracy,” Johndroe said. “And I think we are headed in that direction.”

It was not clear whether President Bush, who spoke to Musharraf on Wednesday, knew of plans to confine Bhutto and prevent the rally from taking place. White House Press Secretary Dana Perino, with the president in Crawford, Texas, said she didn’t know whether the U.S. had been told in advance.

Until only days ago, Musharraf and Bhutto were in power-sharing negotiations, talks that Musharraf aides say have continued via back channels. Prior to her return, the Pakistani leader signed an amnesty for her regarding corruption charges stemming from her two terms as prime minister.

Musharraf, in turn, had hoped that Bhutto, with her enormous popular following, would lend legitimacy to another presidential term for him, an undertaking that would be perilous without his main source of power, his position as military chief. He took power in a coup in 1999.

Bhutto, addressing reporters by phone and loudspeaker from in front of her Islamabad home, vowed to “continue to fight for democracy and the rule of law.”

“I want to tell you to have courage because this battle is against dictatorship and it will be won by the people,” she said.

Bhutto has a following that may prove loyal to her whatever she does. Watching the drama outside her home on Friday, Akram Hayat Malik, a former lawmaker, appeared close to tears.

“I would do anything for her,” she said. “And she would do anything for us.”

laura.king@latimes.com

paul.richter@latimes.com

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King reported from Islamabad and Richter from Washington. Special correspondents Mubashir Zaidi in Islamabad and Zulfiqar Ali in Peshawar and Times staff writer James Gerstenzang in Crawford contributed to this report.


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