ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – President Gen. Pervez Musharraf held secret talks with opposition leader and former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, a government minister said Saturday. Media widely reported the once-bitter rivals discussed a power-sharing deal.
Analysts said Pakistan's Western allies would welcome an alliance that could ease pressure on the increasingly embattled Musharraf by bringing the secular, liberal opposition into the government amid growing concern about the rise of Islamic militancy.
Initial reports suggested there was no breakthrough in the talks on a key issue for Bhutto, who insists Musharraf must quit his military post if he hopes to remain president.
Minister for Railways Sheikh Rashid Ahmed told The Associated Press that the president and Bhutto "held a successful meeting" in the Gulf emirate of Abu Dhabi on Friday. He would not elaborate on the subject of the talks.
Bhutto, speaking by phone with Pakistani television station KTN, repeatedly dodged the question when asked if she had met Musharraf.
"Let's talk of something else," she said from London. "Whatever we have done and are doing it is for democracy and social and economic rights of the people of Pakistan."
But she reiterated her insistence that Musharraf should quit the military.
"Our stand is that, and I stick to my stand, that we do not accept President Musharraf in uniform," she said.
Pakistani newspapers and television networks reported Musharraf and Bhutto discussed a possible power-sharing deal in a meeting that lasted about an hour and ended without agreement.
Back-channel talks between envoys for the two leaders have been reported for months, as Musharraf seeks a way out of a political crisis that has threatened his bid for another five-year term as president.
Musharraf, a key U.S. ally in fighting terrorism, is also battling a surge of militant attacks and rising criticism from Washington that Al Qaeda and the Taliban have been allowed to regroup in Pakistan's semiautonomous tribal belt near Afghanistan.
Sher Afgan Khan Niazi, the Minister of Parliamentary Affairs in the Musharraf-backed government, said it appeared the president and Bhutto were trying to negotiate a deal in which she would support his bid for another presidential term. In return, Musharraf would pave the way for her to return from exile and again become prime minister.
Bhutto, leader of Pakistan's largest secular party, has said Musharraf must also promise give up the power to fire the prime minister and dissolve parliament.
The United States and Britain would welcome such a deal because it would strengthen Musharraf's political capital and, therefore, his ability to combat militancy while also pushing the country back toward democracy, said Rasul Bakhsh Rais, professor of political science at Lahore University of Management Sciences.
"They want to strengthen Musharraf who has been supporting the war on terrorism and his further weakening would damage their cause in Afghanistan," Rais said.
"The second reason is that they want peaceful transition in Pakistan to elected government, and they think Benazir is a better alternative than" Nawaz Sharif, another former prime minister, who heads Pakistan's other main secular opposition party.
It was Sharif who Musharraf ousted in 1999 in a bloodless coup.
Any alliance would be uneasy between Musharraf and Bhutto, who had called the president "almost every bad word in the political vocabulary," Rais said.
Any pact faces significant hurdles, including a constitutional ban on anyone holding the prime minister's post more than twice. Bhutto, who served as prime minister once in the 1980s and again in the 1990s, is also wanted on corruption charges that caused her to flee into exile.
Musharraf has been unwilling to quit the army, the main source of his power, fueling disquiet about military rule. His recent clumsy bid to remove Pakistan's chief justice triggered a series of rallies by lawyers and opposition parties that drew tens of thousands demanding greater democracy.
It was on this point that Friday's talks with Bhutto faltered, according to Geo television and other Pakistan media, who cited unnamed sources.
The backdrop of Pakistan's political uncertainty is militant violence that has surged since an army assault on the pro-Taliban Red Mosque that killed at least 102 people this month. A controversial security deal with tribal leaders on the Afghan border to contain Taliban and Al Qaeda forces has also collapsed.
On Friday, a suicide bomber blew himself up in a busy market district of Islamabad shortly after police clashed with rock-throwing protesters at the reopening of the Red Mosque. Thirteen people were killed and scores wounded in the blast.
Investigators on Saturday sifted through the wreckage of the bombed-out restaurant where blast occurred and scoured a government identification card database to try to identify the attacker from remains found at the site.
Interior Minister Aftab Ahmed Khan Sherpao said progress was difficult because the remains — including a torso and head with its nose blown off — were mangled in the blast.
"We don't have any information with regard to the suicide bomber," he said on Saturday.
Bhutto has been positioning herself as a champion of democracy and anti-terrorist campaigner, and has hinted she may be willing to cut a deal with Musharraf. But she has also been a sharp critic, calling Musharraf a dictator.
In an interview with The Associated Press in London earlier this month, Bhutto attacked Musharraf's record of fighting Islamic extremism, but left open the possibility of returning to the country while he was still president.