WASHINGTON — Former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who's pledged to end her 10-year exile next month in hopes of returning to power, said Tuesday that the Bush administration had made a mistake by believing that the government of Gen. Pervez Musharraf was the best choice for fighting terrorism.
Bhutto said extremism had grown under Musharraf, whose government has received more than $10 billion in U.S. aid since 9-11 in return for help in fighting al Qaida.
Al Qaida and its allies from Afghanistan's deposed Taliban government now control large sections of Pakistan's tribal areas, she said.
"General Musharraf is trying to convince the world he's the only one standing in the way of an extremist takeover of nuclear-armed Pakistan. In fact, military rule is a cause of the anarchic situation in Pakistan," she said.
The Middle East Institute, a Washington research center, had invited her to speak.
Her speech seemed to be an attempt to cast herself as a better hope for the U.S. goal of crushing al Qaida. She said the idea that a military could deal with extremists better than a democracy is a "strategic miscalculation."
"Military rule is the cause "of extremism, she said, "not the solution."
The Pakistani Supreme Court is expected to rule in the next few days on whether Musharraf is eligible to seek re-election. Lawmakers select the next president in October.
Pakistan has been roiled since May by political tension and violence that began with riots after Musharraf removed a Supreme Court justice and peaked in July when the army stormed a major mosque in Islamabad, killing its controversial hard-line imam and perhaps as many as 75 of his supporters.
In recent weeks, Musharraf has been detaining opposition leaders, something Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Monday called "troubling." Earlier this month his government deported another former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, when he tried to return from exile.
Bhutto said she'd return to Pakistan on Oct. 18 to begin organizing for January parliamentary elections and expected to be greeted by joyful crowds. She said the government's reaction was unknown.
"I do not know what awaits me," she said, "but in any case, I am returning home."
On Tuesday, State Department spokesman Tom Casey said Musharraf and other politicians wanted Pakistan to become a "moderate democratic Islamic country."
The choice of who will lead Pakistan "needs to be (made) by the Pakistani people, and that's why these elections are so crucial and why they need to be free, fair and transparent and have broad participation from all the relevant factions," Casey said.
Bhutto charged that Musharraf had done much to undermine that process.
She said his government had weakened the press and the court system and left mosques as the only outlet of political expression. She said the government had appointed radical clerics while it "marginalized, imprisoned or exiled" Pakistanis with moderate views.
She said the United States had long supported Pakistan's military rulers but that the country now was at a turning point between dictatorship and democracy.
"A democratically elected government, enjoying the support of the people, can, I believe, bring peace to the people of Pakistan and eliminate terrorism," she said.
Most Pakistanis are moderates who want democracy and economic progress, Bhutto said, adding that she'd mobilize the "moderate middle."
The daughter of a former prime minister who was executed in 1979, Bhutto became the first female prime minister of an Islamic country in 1988. She was removed from office in 1996 under corruption charges, which she has denied. Musharraf took power in a 1999 coup.
During Bhutto's second term, Pakistan became the primary patron of the Taliban as it rose to power in Afghanistan and sheltered Osama bin Laden's al Qaida terrorist network. Bhutto also maintained strong support for Pakistani separatists fighting on India's side of the disputed Kashmir region.
Her Pakistan People's Party has given Musharraf a list of demands, which include giving up his role as army chief and allowing fair elections.
Bhutto said her party's talks about power sharing with Musharraf had stalled because "extremist sympathizers" in his party refuse to accept democracy.
She said she hoped that the United States would pay for monitoring to ensure fair elections.
In a recent report, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a policy research group, said it had tracked $10.58 billion that the United States had given to Pakistan since 2001 and found that the vast majority of it had gone to counter-terrorism, mostly focused on the border with Afghanistan, and about 10 percent was spent on humanitarian aid and development. The report recommended "a more balanced approach."
ON THE WEB