KARACHI, Oct 18 (Reuters) Former Pakistan Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto ended eight years of self-imposed exile today, returning to Karachi where hundreds of thousands of supporters thronged the streets to welcome her home.
''I am thankful to God, I am very happy that I'm back in my country and I was dreaming of this day,'' a tearful Bhutto told Reuters as she disembarked from an Emirates flight from Dubai and kissed a Koran once she stepped on Pakistani soil.
Bhutto returned to lead her Pakistan People's Party into national elections meant to return the country to civilian rule.
For years Bhutto had vowed to return to Pakistan to end military dictatorship, yet she is coming back as a potential ally for President Pervez Musharraf, the army chief who took power in a 1999 coup.
Before saying goodbye to her two daughters and husband, Asif Ali Zardari, in Dubai, Bhutto described Pakistan as being at a crossroads between democracy and dictatorship.
Musharraf is going through his weakest period, and there is strong speculation he will end up sharing power with Bhutto after national elections due in early January.
The United States is believed to have quietly encouraged their alliance to keep nuclear-armed Pakistan pro-Western and committed to fighting al Qaeda and supporting NATO's efforts to stabilise Afghanistan.
''Our goal for Pakistan is to see it develop its democracy, to continue its advance towards being a peaceful modern moderate Islamic state,'' US State Department spokesman Tom Casey said.
''We're very pleased to see that this return by former prime minister Bhutto has gone forward in a peaceful manner.'' MASS APPEAL Soon after arriving Bhutto, boarded a truck designed to withstand a blast in case of attack and made her way through a sea of supporters to a site near the tomb of Pakistan's founder, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, where a rally was planned.
Dressed in a green kameez, a loose tunic, her head covered by a white scarf, Bhutto stood in plain view on top of the truck, ignoring police advice to stay behind its bullet proof glass, as it edged through crowds waving the red, black and green tricolour of her Pakistan People's Party (PPP).
Billboards along the route bore giant images of BB, as she is known, and her late father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the country's first popularly elected prime minister, who was ousted and executed by his army chief, General Mohammed Zia-ul-Haq.
''Now that the people have given their verdict, it is necessary that the elections should be free and fair,'' she said before setting off at the head of a procession into Karachi.
After six hours, Bhutto had gone five kilometres, only a third of the way to the venue of her homecoming rally, so great was the crowd that had largely poured in from the countryside.
''I sold the goats in my house to travel to Karachi and welcome Benazir Bhutto. Since the day she announced her arrival, we lit oil lamps every night, and my old mother offers long prayers for her safety and success,'' said Imdad Chandio, a villager from the barren hinterland of Sindh province.
Some 20,000 security personnel were deployed to provide protection against threatened attacks by militants angered by her readiness to help the United States.
Intelligence reports suggested at least three jihadi groups linked to al Qaeda and the Taliban were plotting suicide attacks, according to a provincial official.
HAPPY MARKET, UNHAPPY COURT While the rest of Pakistan was transfixed by Bhutto's homecoming, Musharraf spent most of the day at his army office in Rawalpindi, with no official engagements, an aide said.
Bhutto's return pleased investors in the Karachi Stock Exchange, whose main index has risen 47 per cent this year.
''There is a feeling that the political scenario will stabilise now and there will be consistent economic policies,'' said Muzzamil Mussani, a dealer at JS Global Capital Ltd as the index hit a record high of 14,802.61 points, up over 1 percent.
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.
But the Supreme Court is hearing challenges to the legality of the amnesty. It is also hearing challenges to the president's right to have stood for re-election while still army chief in a ballot he won easily on October 6.
Musharraf has promised to be sworn in as a civilian leader.
REUTERS RKM BST0028