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Bhutto Optimistic About Deal with Musharraf

Pakistan President Gen. Pervez Musharraf and former Premier Benazir Bhutto are close to reaching an agreement to transition the government toward democracy, a Musharraf ally and Bhutto said Thursday.

Bhutto said she expects to reach an agreement on a democratic transition once Musharraf's government drops corruption cases against her and other politicians.

Railways Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, who is close to Musharraf, also said an announcement of an agreement was imminent.

Bhutto Optimistic about Change

Bhutto and officials from her Pakistan People's Party have been engaged in power-sharing talks with Musharraf, who is expected to be re-elected president in a parliamentary vote Saturday. Although a deal is close, she stressed nothing was final, and that her party was still waiting to see the finished text of the amnesty deal.

"We have to wait till we see. There is many a slip between the cup and the lip," she said in a news conference in London. "Until we see the national reconciliation bill in print form we would not be able to confirm where we stand. But we are now optimistic that this is going through."

"We expect there will be an understanding towards a transition towards democracy," she said.

Musharraf Ally Sees Progress

In Pakistan, Ahmed said talks are promising.

"Things are going in the right direction, as I have been saying for the past several days," he said.

On Wednesday, Bhutto said Musharraf's intransigence had pushed her party to the brink of joining other opposition groups in pulling their lawmakers from parliament to undercut the validity of Saturday's vote.

But Bhutto softened her tone Thursday, saying, "We will either contest the elections or we will abstain from the voting."

An agreement could also propel Bhutto and Musharraf — both pro-Western — toward a power-sharing arrangement after parliamentary elections, which are due by January.

Bhutto said her party was "pleased" that Musharraf had committed to giving up his position as army chief once he is re-elected. "We feel it is a step toward democracy when Gen. Musharraf will take off his uniform," she said.

Some Issues Remain

She also said her demand for Musharraf to give up the presidential power to fire the prime minister — a post she hopes to secure for a third time — could be resolved later.

Bhutto said the two sides had found it difficult to even negotiate with each other.

"But both of us realized that the transfer of power should take place in a peaceful way," she said. "It is much better if we can get the transfer from dictatorship to democracy through peaceful political means and avoiding bloodshed."

Exile May End Soon

Bhutto went into exile eight years ago to avoid arrest on corruption cases registered by another exiled former leader, Nawaz Sharif.

She also has been pursuing a constitutional amendment that would allow her to seek the prime minister's job and other measures to create a level playing field for parliamentary elections.

Musharraf is expected to win the election, assuming his lawyers can fend off last-ditch legal challenges to his candidacy. An opposition lawyer urged the Supreme Court on Thursday to postpone the election to give the judges time to consider Musharraf's contested eligibility. The court adjourned until Friday without a decision.

Opposition Remains

A deal between the government and Bhutto would set back hard-liners in Musharraf's ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Q party who had opposed an amnesty, or any concessions to the woman they consider their biggest political foe.

Party chairman Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain said Wednesday that a broad amnesty would make politicians look like "thieves joining hands to rescue each other."

It would also enrage Musharraf's die-hard opponents.

"Only corrupt elements would cheer this deal, as they will get a new license to loot the national exchequer," said Liaquat Baloch, a leader of a coalition of Islamist parties.

Musharraf Wants Reconciliation

But in an interview broadcast late Wednesday, Musharraf said he wanted political reconciliation with Bhutto's party and others to help fight terrorism and extremism, which he said presented the biggest danger to Pakistan. He said he also wanted to withdraw cases against other political leaders, including Sharif — although he recently blocked him from returning from exile.

The government has given few details about the proposed amnesty other than that it would cover cases up to 1999 in which people had not been convicted.

Bhutto led the government twice between 1988 and 1996, but was overthrown both times amid allegations of corruption and misrule. She has said she will return to Pakistan on Oct. 18.

From NPR reports and The Associated Press

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