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Signs Emerge of Thaw Between Exiled Former Pakistani Leaders and Government

Pakistan has not one, but two ex-prime ministers in exile. Both have been sharply critical of the rule of President Pervez Musharraf, but there are signs of at least a partial thaw.

Former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto has been among the harshest critics of President Musharraf, often calling his rule an assault on human and democratic rights of the Pakistani people. But Ms. Bhutto is now adopting a softer tone.

In an exclusive interview in Washington, Ms. Bhutto told VOA a new dialogue has opened between representatives of her Pakistan Peoples' Party and the government, as well as talks between the government and the party of the other exiled prime minister, Nawaz Sharif.

"General Musharraf recently started contacts with the Pakistan Peoples' Party, and indeed with the PML-N [Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz] and other opposition groups," he said. "And he has said he is attempting to bring all political parties within the mainstream. And I would like to take his words at face value, and I would like to give some time to see this process develop. But, of course, I think things have to move on the ground."

In the clearest sign yet of a possible healing of the rift, Ms. Bhutto confirms that her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, will return to Pakistan next month to take up the mantle of political leadership she is barred from assuming. Mr. Zardari was released from a Karachi jail late last year, after serving eight years on corruption charges, and immediately joined her in exile.

But Ms. Bhutto says it has been made clear to her that the new political openness does not yet include her, and she cannot yet return.

"It has been privately communicated to me that while political space will be granted to my husband and some of the other opposition leaders from the other parties, that I must not come back, because the whole space that has been granted will be closed up," she explained.

She hastens to add that talking does not mean that there is agreement. Ms. Bhutto says she wants early elections before the next scheduled polls of 2007, but Mr. Musharraf refuses.

"Contacts is one matter, and agreement is another matter," she noted. "I do believe that contacts are important, because, while we may have differing perceptions and positions today, the communication allows us to try to resolve these differences of opinion through the process of dialogue. So I welcome it."

Pervez Musharraf ousted Nawaz Sharif in a coup in 1999. Mr. Sharif went to Saudi Arabia. Ms. Bhutto shuttles in exile between London and Dubai. Ms. Bhutto was twice prime minister during the 1990s, only to have her terms cut short by political machinations that brought Mr. Sharif to power.

Mr. Sharif twice suffered the same fate. Once bitter political enemies, they have now joined in opposition to Mr. Musharraf.

Ms. Bhutto came to Washington seeking support for her movement, a difficult task given Mr. Musharraf's status as a staunch ally in the U.S.-proclaimed war on terrorism. But she says that the Bush administration's declaration of an agenda to promote freedom applies to all countries, including Pakistan.

"So, I take heart from this worldwide democratic movement, and I believe that Washington's commitment to the restoration of democracy creates a climate that facilitates the people of Pakistan's struggle for democracy," she said.

Mr. Musharraf continues to wear two hats, that of civilian president and military chief. Power remains centralized in his hands.

But he has had to satisfy the demands of the Islamic religious parties, even as he aligns himself with Washington in the fight against al-Qaida and its allies. Many political analysts believe Mr. Musharraf is reaching out to Ms. Bhutto and Mr. Sharif as a counterweight to the growing clout of the religious parties.