Pakistan transition to advance despite violence

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ISLAMABAD, Oct 21 (Reuters) The threat of violence looming over Pakistani politics adds to an atmosphere of distrust but is unlikely to derail tentative steps on a transition to civilian rule, analysts said.

Last week's killing of 139 people in a suicide attack on opposition leader Benazir Bhutto during her homecoming parade in Karachi should unite political parties and the security establishment against spreading militant violence, they said.

Military president Pervez Musharraf and former prime minister Bhutto share a determination to tackle al Qaeda and allied militants, and nuclear-armed Pakistan's Western allies have been quietly encouraging the two to cooperate.

But suspicion in Bhutto's camp that rogue security elements are egging on militant bombers might upset reconciliation efforts that could see her and Musharraf -- who has also survived suicide bomb attacks -- sharing power after a January election.

''The threat of violence in politics was so clearly demonstrated yet again,'' political analyst Nasim Zehra said of the Karachi blasts.

''It emphatically underscores the need for national reconciliation and the need for the country to really be together on the same side -- the political forces plus the establishment forces - to deal with this.'' The government suspects al Qaeda-linked militants based on the Afghan border were responsible. They have carried out a string of similar attacks on the security forces and other targets, killing hundreds of people in recent months.

''They are both the targets of terrorism,'' political commentator Ayaz Amir said of Bhutto and Musharraf.

Their Western backers were likely to encourage both to step up efforts to cooperate in face of the common danger, he said.

SUSPICION Bhutto has alluded to enemies in the Pakistani establishment spreading militancy and plotting against her although she stressed she was not blaming the government for the attack.

''There is lingering suspicion,'' said Shafqat Mahmood, a former minister and political analyst. ''She keeps saying her main problem is 'elements within government who hate her', not al Qaeda.'' ''They like the fact that they've got a smooth run up to now but the party would love to take on Musharraf because it's part of the old PPP ethos to take on military dictators,'' Mahmood said of Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party.

Musharraf won a disputed presidential election on Oct. 6 although the Supreme Court has yet to ratify his victory while still army chief. He has promised to quit the army before being sworn in for a new term by mid-November.

The government said the Karachi violence would not affect the general election but officials have indicated campaigning could be restricted because of the threat of violence.

Despite that likelihood, changes were underway that will see the military, which has ruled for more than half of the 60 years since Pakistan's creation, edging out of politics.

''Certain changes probably will occur: firstly the president doffing his uniform, having elections, and any prime minister will have a larger measure of independence than Shaukat Aziz,'' Amir said, referring to the outgoing prime minister.

But analysts said for the election to be seen as fair, the government had to allow the participation of another former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, whom Musharraf ousted in 1999 and later exiled.

''The election won't be seen as free and fair if Nawaz Sharif is not allowed back,'' Mahmood said.

Sharif tried to return last month but was deported. Musharraf cobbled together his powerbase from Sharif's party and his return to politics could trigger defections from Musharraf.

REUTERS SYU AS1357

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