Pakistan's Bhutto again aims to end army rule

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KARACHI, Oct 18 (Reuters) For the second time in a roller-coaster political career, Benazir Bhutto has returned to Pakistan after years abroad, aiming to end military rule and steer her turbulent country toward democracy.

In 1986, a vast sea of supporters welcomed her as she came back to challenge a military dictator who had executed her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, seven years earlier.

Today, Bhutto, 54, came back after more than eight years abroad.

But rather than confronting a military ruler, she is hoping to work with army chief and president Pervez Musharraf for a peaceful transition to civilian rule.

Her stand has raised questions among some who want to force the powerful military out of politics, including some in her Pakistan People's Party, but she still possesses more mass appeal than any other leader.

While the crowds out to greet her in Karachi today might not be quite as big as they were 21 years ago, Bhutto faces similar perils on a path that has taken her from the country's jails to its corridors of power, and could bring her back to power again.

Bhutto became the first female prime minister in the Muslim world when she was elected in 1988 at age 35. She was deposed in 1990, re-elected in 1993, and ousted again in 1996 amid charges of corruption and mismanagement.

She says the charges were politically motivated but in 1999 chose to stay in exile rather than face them.

Despite being in the wilderness most of the last decade, the tall, stately Bhutto remains one of the most recognisable female politicians in the world.

Musharraf has vowed to quit the army but needed Bhutto's support to give an Oct. 6 presidential election, boycotted by other opposition parties, an element of legitimacy. In return, he promulgated an ordinance erasing the corruption charges.

But the fate of Musharraf's re-election and Bhutto's amnesty rest with the Supreme Court which has to rule on their legality.

Until then, the old rivals are likely to put on hold talks on a pact that could see Bhutto supporting Musharraf after a general election due in January.

Western allies see their cooperation as the best way to sustain the nuclear-armed Muslim country's efforts against terrorism.

Bhutto's security will be a huge worry.

Both of her brothers died in mysterious circumstances and she says al Qaeda assassins tried to kill her several times in the 1990s. Intelligence reports say Al Qaeda, the Taliban and Pakistani jihadi groups have dispatched suicide bombers to kill her.

Bhutto has said that if she was in power she would allow US forces to strike against al Qaeda targets in Pakistani territory, if Pakistan's own forces were unable to carry out an attack.

POWER AND TRAGEDY Bhutto, whose first name means ''unique'', was born in 1953 into a wealthy landowning family. The first of four children, she was educated at a Christian mission school in Karachi, Harvard and Oxford.

The daughter of Pakistan's first popularly elected leader, her crusade began in 1977 when army chief Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq overthrew her father. Twenty-one months later it became a blood feud when Zulfikar was hanged after a controversial trial.

For years Bhutto fought against Zia without success. She and her mother, Nusrat, were in and out of prison until she was allowed to go abroad for medical treatment in 1984.

In August 1988, Zia was killed in an air crash. Bhutto's election victory later that year was welcomed worldwide as the advent of democracy in Pakistan.

But many in the powerful security services distrusted her and President Ghulam Ishaq Khan sacked her after 20 months, accusing her of presiding over large-scale corruption.

She accused the establishment of rigging elections three months later to bring their protege, Nawaz Sharif, to power.

Bhutto clawed her way back in 1993 but was again kicked out of power on charges of corruption and misrule.

She has portrayed herself as struggling against the odds to steer her country on a moderate course. Her critics say she led corrupt, inept governments that fumbled foreign policy, flirted with economic ruin and trampled rights.

Asif Zardari, the businessman Bhutto wed in an arranged marriage in 1987, has been seen as her greatest liability.

He was released on bail after eight years in prison in 2004. The October 5 ordinance also erased charges against him.

REUTERS SKB HS1439

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