Musharraf and Bhutto meet in Abu Dhabi, official says
A pact could aid Pakistani leader
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- Pakistan's president, General Pervez Musharraf, held secret talks with opposition leader and former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, a government minister said yesterday. Pakistan media said the once-bitter rivals discussed a power-sharing deal.
Bhutto is leader of the secular Pakistan People's Party, the country's largest opposition group. Such an alliance could strengthen Musharraf by bringing the secular, liberal opposition into his government amid growing concern about a rise in Islamic militancy. Analysts said Pakistan's Western allies would welcome that.
Newspaper and television reports said the talks stalled over Bhutto's insistence that Musharraf, a key US ally in fighting terrorism, quit his military post if he hopes to remain president.
The railways minister, Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, said the president and Bhutto "held a successful meeting" in the Gulf emirate of Abu Dhabi on Friday. Ahmed would not elaborate.
Bhutto told Pakistani television station KTN by phone from London: "Whatever we have done and are doing, it is for democracy and social and economic rights of the people of Pakistan."
But Bhutto would not confirm that she had met with Musharraf. "Let's talk of something else," she said.
Any power-sharing agreement would face significant hurdles.
Pakistan's constitution bars anyone holding the prime minister's post more than twice. Bhutto, who served as prime minister once in the 1980s and again in the 1990s, is also wanted on corruption charges that forced her into exile in 1999, the year Musharraf took the reins.
The relationship between the two leaders has also been troubled by Bhutto's criticism of Musharraf. She and other opposition leaders have called the president a dictator and pressed him to increase democratic freedoms.
Musharraf seized power in a bloodless coup in 1999 and pledged to quickly restore democracy. He is expected to seek reelection when his term expires in October, and he wants the current crop of politicians in federal and provincial assemblies, who supported him five years ago, to vote again.
The opposition says the 2002 elections of those representatives were fixed and insists that only the lawmakers chosen in parliamentary elections due at the end of 2007 should have the right to elect the next head of state.
Observers say the new lawmakers may be less inclined to support Musharraf.
Back-channel talks between envoys for the increasingly embattled Musharraf and Bhutto have been reported for months, but Musharraf has been unwilling to leave the army, the main source of his power.
Bhutto insisted yesterday that Musharraf must quit the military. "Our stand is that, and I stick to my stand, that we do not accept President Musharraf in uniform," she said.
Bhutto has also said that Musharraf must promise to give up the power to fire the prime minister and dissolve Parliament.
Widespread protests against Musharraf began after he suspended Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry in October.
The government has said it received a string of credible complaints that the judge had abused his office. Critics accuse the government of trying to remove an independent-minded judge ahead of possible legal challenges to Musharraf's continued rule.
Weakening Musharraf's hold on power is the militant violence that surged after an army assault on the pro-Taliban Red Mosque, in which at least 102 people were killed this month. A controversial security deal with tribal leaders on the Afghan border, meant to contain Taliban and Al Qaeda forces, collapsed in the face of violence that flared in reaction to the mosque raid.
Musharraf also faces rising criticism from Washington that Al Qaeda and the Taliban have been allowed to regroup in Pakistan's semiautonomous tribal belt near Afghanistan.
Yesterday Pakistan condemned US legislation that ties American aid to Islamabad's efforts to stop Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and other anti-Western extremists from operating in its territory.
The bill approved Friday by the US House of Representatives contains measures that "cast a shadow on the existing cooperation between Pakistan and United States," the Foreign Ministry said.
The United States and Britain would welcome a Musharraf-Bhutto deal because it would add to Musharraf's political capital and, therefore, to his ability to combat militancy, said Rasul Bakhsh Rais, professor of political science at Lahore University of Management Sciences.
"They want to strengthen Musharraf, who has been supporting the war on terrorism," Rais said. "His further weakening would damage their cause in Afghanistan. The second reason is that they want peaceful transition . . . to elected government."
In the latest violence, a suicide bomber blew himself up Friday in a busy market district of Islamabad shortly after police clashed with rock-throwing protesters during the reopening of the Red Mosque. Thirteen people were killed, and scores were wounded in the blast.