MICHELE NORRIS, host:
Pakistani police said today they had made what they're calling a major breakthrough in their investigation into the killing of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto. Bhutto was assassinated after an election rally last December. The police say they have arrested two Islamist militants and they have confessed to giving the attacker a suicide jacket and a pistol.
Pakistan has been on high alert ever since the assassination. There are troops on the streets in advance of next week's parliamentary elections. And the tension is especially evident in Karachi. It's Pakistan's biggest city as well as its financial and commercial hub.
And as NPR's Philip Reeves reports, Karachi has also become a byword for bombings and gun battles.
PHILIP REEVES: Ubaid Khan(ph), a student of accounting, is sauntering along the beach. On one side lie the serene warm waters of the Arabian Sea. On the other, there's a McDonalds and a Kentucky Fried Chicken, and one of the world's great ports - Karachi.
Karachi is a huge, vibrant place. But it has much the same reputation for political violence as Beirut. It's also Ubaid Khan's hometown, and he's tired of hearing it maligned.
Mr. UBAID KHAN (Student): I don't know - people here, I don't know, they don't really go by what the image is being created. They want to be normal. I mean, they want to hang out with their friends. They want to do everything what a normal person in the West does.
REEVES: If you explore the streets, you see what Ubaid means. Much of the city looks secular and surprisingly modern. You see unveiled women in boutiques and cafes, and signs from the top hotels advertising candlelit Valentine's Day dinners. Look a little closer, though, and you also see a city living on its nerves.
(Soundbite of car horn)
REEVES: Armed men guard the headquarters of the MQM, the political party that rules Karachi with an iron hand. The building's a fortress, barricaded by roadblocks and towering concrete blast barriers. In this city, Pakistan's competing ethnic groups collide.
The MQM is the party of the muhajirs, Urdu speakers who migrated here after partition in 1947. It grew after the bloody rivalry between the muhajirs and people of Sindh province, of which Karachi is the capital.
Karachi also has a large population of Pashtuns from Pakistan's northwest. Talat Aslam is editor of the Karachi bureau of the newspaper The News. He says the city can easily turn violent.
Mr. TALAT ASLAM (Karachi Bureau Editor, The News): It has the potential and it can kind of explode into orgies of violence. The mix is really, really volatile.
REEVES: Karachi is seen as a hiding place for al-Qaida. Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl was kidnapped in this city in 2002, and later murdered. But Talat Aslam cautions against overstating the influence of violent religious fundamentalists.
Mr. ASLAM: There is a population here which does support the extremists and things, but it is by no matter of means a very large section of the population. It is there in pockets, yes.
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REEVES: With elections only a few days away, the MQM is campaigning hard. All over the city, you see portraits of its leader.
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REEVES: Altaf Hussain has been in self-imposed exile in London for years. His opponents accuse him and his party of violent crimes including instigating this gunfight in May to stop Pakistan's now-sacked chief justice coming to town.
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REEVES: The city was brought to a standstill, 48 people died. The MQM denies it was responsible.
The party is one of President Pervez Musharraf's diminishing pillars of support. Shoaib Bukhari, an MQM provincial minister, insists, though, that the polls are wrong when they say that most Pakistanis now want Musharraf to leave office.
Mr. SHOAIB BUKHARI (MQM provincial minister, Liaquatabad, Pakistan): Personally, Pervez Musharraf is still popular. Even today, if you have an assessment here, you will find that every simple living Pakistani supports Pervez Musharraf on the ground.
REEVES: Many Pakistanis are convinced the elections will be rigged. Benazir Bhutto's assassination has raised the temperature. Talat Aslam's worried that her party supporters will react violently if they don't get the big win they're expecting. Sindh is their stronghold. Trouble will be sure to spill into Karachi. Aslam says rumors are already flying.
Mr. ASLAM: You can see it from the office window, you realize there's been a rumor because people just go berzerk trying to get home at all costs and create chaos on the streets. So the level of paranoia is extremely high in Karachi.
REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News, Karachi.
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