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Pakistan braces for Bhutto return

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  • Benazir Bhutto supporters surge toward Karachi on the eve of her return
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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (CNN) -- Fulfilling her promise and ending eight years of self-imposed exile, former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto said Wednesday she would return to Pakistan through the southern port city of Karachi on Thursday.

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Benazir Bhutto plans to end her eight-year exile and return to Pakistan on October 18.

"I say a prayer as I prepare to leave and I pray that God give me the strength and the wisdom to bring democracy to my country and to end extremism; to provide food, clothing and shelter, and fulfill the aspirations of the great people of my country who deserve a better future than they have had in the past."

Bhutto, 54, said more than a million people will gather in Karachi on Thursday to welcome her back.

"I have been most encouraged to hear that lots and lots of people are converging," she told CNN. "... And it just proves what I've always believed in, that the moderate middle in Pakistan wants democracy, wants education and empowerment and an end to extremism which is just bringing debt and violence, and preventing our people from achieving progress and prosperity."

Earlier this month, the office of President Pervez Musharraf announced he had signed a "reconciliation ordinance" that dropped outstanding corruption charges against Bhutto and a number of other politicians.

The move could shore up support for the embattled president and possibly strike a power-sharing deal with the former premier.

According to a Bhutto adviser, the move could "pave the way for Mrs. Bhutto's unhindered return to Pakistan and free and fair elections."

Musharraf won a third term as Pakistan's president earlier this month, taking about 97 percent of votes cast in the national parliament and the four provincial assemblies in an election boycotted by a number of opposition parties. Although Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party (PPP) did not join the boycott, she said at the time that the PPP "will not vote for him."

The boycott highlighted the opposition's demand that Musharraf abandon his role as military chief before seeking another term as president. Musharraf repeatedly promised to take off his military chief's uniform if he won a third term.

The election is not yet legally official -- the country's Supreme Court is hearing constitutional challenges to Musharraf's eligibility filed by the opposition -- but the next five-year presidential term is scheduled to begin November 15.

Bhutto hopes to win a third term for herself as prime minister of Pakistan. That will require a change in the county's constitution and her adviser, Wajid Shamsul Hasan, indicated that a power sharing deal with Musharraf that would allow that change is in place.

Former Pakistani ambassador to Britain, Akbar Ahmed, told CNN earlier this month that the union would be supported by the United States.

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Bhutto is "the civilian face -- the politician heading the largest political party in Pakistan," he said.

Her "combining with President Musharraf, who is the tried and trusted ally of the United States for the last several years" would be "a combination which insures stability and continuity -- this is crucial for Washington."

But, Ahmed cited his concern with the "very strong mood of opposition and disillusionment" that has struck the country, a mood that he said will continue to grow.

Bhutto has been a polarizing figure in Pakistan because she's a woman in a traditional Muslim nation and because of her policies. But, her adviser has said Bhutto only wants a return to democracy.

Musharraf and Bhutto "have been very much on the opposite side of the spectrum, they have been antagonists, now they have come together," Ahmed said. "It's going to be a very interesting relationship between these two, but if this can work then you do have a substantial direction being given to Pakistan."

Bhutto, daughter of deposed Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto -- served as prime minister from 1988 until 1990, when her government was dismissed amid corruption allegations that she denied. She returned to power in 1993, but again her government was dismissed amid corruption allegations in 1996. Her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, was jailed at that time, but he was released in 2004.

Musharraf led a 1999 coup against the government of then-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, as Pakistan's army chief, a position he has been reluctant to relinquish because traditionally the real power base resides in the military, not with the Pakistani people. The president has seen his power erode since a failed effort earlier this year to fire the Supreme Court's chief justice. His administration is also struggling to contain a surge in Islamic militancy.

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Sharif, head of the Pakistan Muslim Party, has also sought to return to Pakistan, but when he arrived in Islamabad last month, he was served with warrants on outstanding charges that had been imposed by Musharraf's government. He was allowed to return to Saudi Arabia rather than face arrest.

Convicted of tax evasion and treason after Musharraf seized power, Sharif was released in 2000 in exchange for agreeing to 10 years of exile in Saudi Arabia. He retained his Pakistani citizenship, but has not been allowed to travel to Pakistan or directly take part in Pakistani politics. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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