KARACHI, Oct 18 (Reuters) Pakistanis waited in suspense today for former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto to return from self-imposed exile, under threat of assassination from militants linked to al Qaeda.
For years Bhutto had promised to return to end the military dictatorship, yet she was coming back as a potential ally of President Pervez Musharraf, the army chief who seized power in a coup in 1999.
Her homecoming in Karachi, arguably Pakistan's most violent city, was likely to be a security nightmare.
Intelligence reports suggested at least three jihadi groups linked to al Qaeda and the Taliban were plotting suicide attacks, according to a provincial official.
''At this moment, I'm not thinking about death,'' Bhutto said on Geo Television in an interview late yesterday.
''I'm going back for the people of Pakistan and it is my faith that everything will be all right.'' She added that she did not believe a genuine Muslim would attack a woman.
Bhutto's flight from Dubai was expected to arrive at 1 p m (1330 IST), but it could take hours for her to travel through packed streets for a rally near the tomb of Pakistan's founder, Mohammad Ali Jinnah.
About 20,000 security personnel were being deployed, according to the official.
MASS APPEAL No other Pakistani leader has Bhutto's mass appeal, even if aides' predictions of a million people turning out to greet her prove exaggerated.
Red, black and green flags of Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party festooned streets and billboards displayed giant images of her face beneath her trademark white scarf.
Strangers could have been forgiven for believing she was still in power, rather than the increasingly unpopular Musharraf.
The general was going through his weakest period, and there was strong speculation that he would end up sharing power with Bhutto after national elections due in early January.
The United States was believed to have quietly encouraged their alliance to keep nuclear-armed Pakistan in the pro-Western camp, and committed to fighting al Qaeda and supporting NATO's efforts to stabilise Afghanistan.
Bhutto has said that if she was in power she would allow US forces to strike al Qaeda targets in Pakistani territory, if Pakistan's own forces were unable to carry out an attack.
Musharraf has already granted an amnesty to protect Bhutto from corruption charges brought by the government of Nawaz Sharif, the prime minister he overthrew and later exiled.
Pakistan's future was still very much in the balance.
The Supreme Court was hearing challenges to Musharraf's right to have stood for re-election while still army chief in a ballot he won easily on October 6.
The court has been regarded as hostile to Musharraf since his abortive attempt to remove the chief justice in March, but even opposition lawyers doubted whether judges hearing the case would dare disqualify Musharraf, who had promised to quit the army if he was re-elected.
The Supreme Court was also due to hear challenges to the amnesty granted to Bhutto, raising the possibility that she might still face a jail term.
REUTERS CS BST0411