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Campaign at your own peril

Pakistan | She survived one assassination attempt, but threats against Benazir Bhutto aren't over

Issue: "Elephant in the room," Nov. 3, 2007

After tallying the deaths, visiting the wounded, and mourning the sons lost, Pakistani political hopeful Benazir Bhutto faced yet more threats. Days after two suicide bombers ripped through her homecoming procession in Karachi, killing about 140, her lawyer received a letter. The writer, the self-proclaimed "head of the suicide bombers and a friend of al-Qaida," threatened to kill Bhutto "like a goat."

Authentic or not, the letter underscored the tough battle ahead for Bhutto, who hopes to become a third-time prime minister in Pakistan after years in political exile. Her Pakistan People's Party (PPP) enjoys heavy support in the country's four provinces and among the poor. Hundreds of unpaid bodyguards volunteered to protect Bhutto as her bulletproof bus inched through Karachi's streets Oct. 18. Fifty of them died, and 40 of the young men hailed from Karachi's Lyari slum, loyal to Bhutto in the midst of joblessness, crime, and dirt.

With the deadly bombing, Bhutto's work has become "10 times harder," said Victor Gill, a Pakistani-American commentator. She has returned to Pakistan hoping to win in parliamentary elections slated for January, but security worries are prompting cautious campaigning. For now, she is avoiding valuable mass rallies.

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President Pervez Musharraf's competing agendas also mean Bhutto will find it hard to distinguish friend from foe. Some of Musharraf's officials, who have ruled for the last eight years, do not want to cede territory to her. Bhutto and her party suspect elements in Musharraf's government are behind the bombing, and they have called for international investigators to help with the case-a request denied by Islamabad.

Some things about the bombing do not add up, the PPP says: The bombers came agonizingly close to her bus, for instance, and street lights at the bomb site were mysteriously dark. "The country is hard, the people are corrupt . . . there are plenty of people who will show sympathy to Bhutto and at the same time be [anti-Bhutto]," Gill said.

On the one hand, a weakened Musharraf needs the popular Bhutto to stay in power. On the other, Gill said, Musharraf cannot afford to have the 54-year-old democrat become too independent. "He needed her as a 'yes' person, not as his leader," Gill told WORLD. "All the other people he has are 'yes' men."

Bhutto is not one to follow a rival's orders, however. She brushed off Musharraf's request that she delay her homecoming. He told her to wait until Pakistan's supreme court decided if he can remain president. Though he won the presidential election Oct. 6, the court is deciding if he was eligible to run at all because he carries a second title of army chief.

If the ruling goes against him, Gill said, Musharraf likely does not want Bhutto in the country as a ready, U.S.-backed challenger. Bhutto was able to return because the government dropped long-standing corruption charges against her, which so far appear politically motivated. But new graft cases might yet crop up to stall Bhutto. With Musharraf's leadership in limbo and Bhutto's life on the line, little in Pakistan's politics will be predictable.

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