Bhutto criticizes US for backing Musharraf

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WASHINGTON, Sep 25 (Reuters) Former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto criticized Washington today for its support of President Pervez Musharraf and said she was ''praying for the best'' when she returned home next month.

Musharraf is a close US ally in fighting terrorism but Bhutto said his military rule had served only to fuel the extremism that Washington was trying to counter.

She called US backing of Musharraf, who seized power in a bloodless coup in 1999, a ''strategic miscalculation.'' ''Military rule is the cause of the anarchic situation in Pakistan,'' said Bhutto who is in Washington to lobby for support ahead of her return to Pakistan next month. ''Military rule is not the solution,'' she said in a speech hosted by the Middle East Institute.

The United States voices only rare criticism of Musharraf, preferring rather to encourage his counter-terrorism agenda than focus on criticism of his domestic politics.

One exception came yesterday when US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told Reuters she found the recent arrests in Pakistan of opposition activists ''troubling.'' Bhutto, who has been in exile for the past eight years, said when she goes home on October 18 she expected to be greeted with joy by people wanting an end to Musharraf's rule.

When another exiled prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, tried to return home this month, authorities bundled him off back to Saudi Arabia hours after he landed at Islamabad airport.

''I do not know what awaits me personally or politically once I am in the airport. I am praying for the best while I do prepare for the worst, but in any case I am going home,'' Bhutto said. ''I do not fear the extremists for I have put my faith in the hands of the people of Pakistan and my faith in God.'' Bhutto, who faces a slew of corruption charges and possibly arrest if she returns to Pakistan, said she did not fear the same fate as Sharif.

STALLED TALKS Power-sharing negotiations between Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party and Musharraf have been stalled, with Bhutto insisting the general quit his army post before a presidential vote due on October 15.

She reiterated her party could not support the notion of a military president, adding that her party would meet in London on October 3 to decide how to proceed.

Bhutto said she was aware many questioned her talks with Musharraf in recent months, but the former prime minister said she had approached the discussions ''with my eyes wide open.'' She said the dialogue was now stalled because ''extremist sympathizers'' in Musharraf's party refused to accept a democratic process.

She said when Musharraf filed his election papers next week, her party would have to decide whether to resign or abstain from the elections in protest.

On her return, Bhutto said she planned to mobilize the ''moderate middle'' in her country.

''I intend to mobilize the moderate center of my nation to assert control of our future and protect the people of Pakistan from the threat of extremism and fanaticism,'' she said.

Reuters KK VP0055

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