Waiting almost over in Pakistan's Bhutto heartland

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GARHI KHUDA BAKSH, Pakistan, Oct 25 (Reuters) The waiting is almost over for Ghulam Nabi, a 70-year-old Pakistani villager who regards Benazir Bhutto as a daughter.

The Pakistani opposition leader plans to visit her ancestral village on Saturday to pray at the tomb where her father was buried after being overthrown and hung three decades ago, aides said on Thursday.

''I'm desperate to see her,'' said Nabi outside the mausoleum he has visited every day since since Bhutto announced last month she was coming back to Pakistan.

The former prime minister had planned to go to Garhi Khuda Baksh days after her return from self-imposed exile a week ago, but she has stayed in Karachi since am assassination attempt on her which killed 139 people last Friday.

''She is my daughter. She's a daughter of the land. Those who attacked her, they're enemies of the Bhutto family. They're enemies of Pakistan,'' says the old man, his dark, crinkled face brimming with emotion beneath a multi-coloured Sindhi cap sparling with tiny mirrors.

The government says Islamist militants based in tribal lands bordering Afghanistan, where al Qaeda and the Taliban have dug in, were behind the attack, believed to have been carried out by a suicide bomber, or possibly two.

Bhutto suspects political allies of President Pervez Musharraf were also plotting against her, though she says she has no reason to believe Musharraf was involved.

General Musharraf granted an amnesty that allowed Bhutto to return to Pakistan without fear of prosecution in graft cases hanging over her from the 1990s.

There is speculation the pair could end up sharing power after national elections due by early January, in a partnership the West would welcome and which would mark a transition toward civilian-led democracy.

GRASSROOTS SUPPORT Bhutto's return to her family's feudal lands will be laden with political symbolism, and is expected to provide a further demonstration of how well her grassroots support has held up.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Pakistan's first popularly elected prime minister, lies alongside his sons Murtaza and Shahnawaz in the white-domed mausoleum Benazir Bhutto ordered to be built in the village.

In preparation for her homecoming, workers cleaned the marble floor of the tomb and placed new chaddars, black clothes usually inscribed with Koranic verses, on the graves.

Outside, farmers harvested rice from paddy fields, while their children beat stalks against stones to free the grain.

PPP workers levelled ground close to the family house, possibly in preparation for Bhutto's arrival by helicopter in the village 25 km (15 miles) outside Larkana city in Sindh province.

Local party leader Shafqat Hussain Soomro feared another assassination attempt.

''Extremists can strike everywhere these days,'' Soomro said, in sombre contrast to the festive mood and music blaring out from speakers set up in reception camps for the party faithful.

Posters bearing portraits of Bhutto and her father festooned roads, and red, black and green party flags adorned rooftops along the route from Larkana, while police erected barricades to deal with the expected crowds.

''I am concerned about my niece's security. She is the symbol of the Bhutto family. If anything happens to her there would be chaos,'' Mumtaz Bhutto, her father's brother, told Reuters in Larkana.

Bhutto's uncle has been reported criticising his niece's decision to remain out of the country for so long, but he remained supportive of her, although he was not enthused by her backing for the U.S.-led war on terrorism.

Critics had expected Bhutto's popular appeal would be dented by the allegations of corruption, the expedient amnesty granted by Musharraf, her negotiations with the general, and the perceived backing from the United States for their partnership.

But the hundreds of thousands of people who turned out to greet her in Karachi last week showed she had retained her strength in her political heartland of southern Sindh province.

''She's our voice. She wants our welfare,'' said Riaz Ali, a 25-year-old small farmer.

''Allah give her a long live. Allah give her our lives,'' he shouted spontaneously.

REUTERS SYU VC1745

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