KARACHI, Pakistan – Benazir Bhutto staged a dramatic homecoming Thursday from eight years in exile, greeting some 150,000 ecstatic supporters and launching a political comeback that could see her team up with Pakistan's U.S.-backed military president.
Bhutto, a two-time former prime minister, wept as she emerged from a plane that brought her from Dubai to Karachi. At the airport, she climbed aboard the roof of a truck and began a triumphant, snail-paced procession through Pakistan's largest city.
"I counted the hours, the minutes and the seconds just to see this land, sky and grass," Bhutto told AP Television News at the airport.
She said she was fighting for democracy and to help this nuclear-armed country of 160 million people defeat the extremism that gave it the reputation as a hotbed of international terrorism.
"That's not the real image of Pakistan. The people that you see outside are the real image of Pakistan. These are the decent and hardworking middle-classes and working classes of Pakistan who want to be empowered so they can build a moderate, modern nation."
Bhutto, a two-time prime minister who fled Pakistan in the face of corruption charges in 1999, has returned at a moment of great political uncertainty.
With parliamentary elections due in January, she hopes to campaign for a record third premiership. However, analysts say she has risked her popularity by compromising with its unpopular president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf.
Authorities deployed thousands of security forces to protect the 54-year-old leader of the secular, liberal Pakistan's People Party from possible attack by Islamic radicals. But the precautions failed to deter her party from mounting a spirited street party.
Hundreds of buses had converged on Karachi overnight, disgorging crowds of supporters ranging from members of Pakistan's minority Christian and Hindu communities to Baluch tribesmen with flowing white turbans.
Men banged on drums, shook maracas and performed traditional dances along her planned route to the tomb of Pakistan's founding father, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, where she planned to make a speech.
Crowds chanted "Prime Minister Benazir!", showered her with flowers, and waved her party's red, black and green flags as her truck inched forward.
Bhutto, who waved and smiled, was squeezed between other party bigwigs at the front of the truck rather than in a bulletproof cubicle toward the rear. Still, as darkness fell, armed guards began escorting the truck.
Azad Bhatti, a 35-year-old poultry farmer from the southern city of Hyderabad, said he had "blind faith" in Bhutto's leadership.
"When Benazir Bhutto is in power there is no bomb blast because she provides jobs and there is no frustration among the people," he said.
Bhutto paved her route back in negotiations with Musharraf, who seized power in a 1999 coup. Musharraf is promising to give up his command of Pakistan's powerful army if he secures a new term as president.
The talks have yielded an amnesty covering the corruption cases that made Bhutto leave Pakistan in the first place, and could see the archrivals, encouraged by Washington, form an alliance against al-Qaida and the Taliban.
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino on Thursday declined to comment directly on Bhutto's return but said the U.S. wanted "a peaceful, democratic Pakistan, an Islamic state that is a moderate force in the region, and one that can be an ally to help us fight extremism and radicalism."
Bhutto, whose two elected governments between 1988 and 1996 were toppled amid allegations of corruption and mismanagement, hopes to lead her party to victory in January.
But many Pakistanis are skeptical that Bhutto can meet her promises of jobs and security.
"People are intelligent now, they don't buy this rubbish," said Kamran Saleen, a 38-year-old businessman who lives near Karachi airport.
The crowd seemed far smaller than the 3 million Bhutto claimed had turned out to welcome her. About 150,000 people showed up, said a provincial official on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the figure.
Government spokesman Muhammad Ali Durrani claimed the event was a flop.
"It is the PPP workers' response and not the public response and even the workers' response is much less than what she was expecting," Durrani said.
Still, the gathering showed Bhutto's party machinery remained intact despite her absence.
Authorities had urged her to delay her return, warning of possible suicide attacks. Police used electronic jammers to prevent anyone detonating a remote-controlled bomb near her convoy. But Bhutto, hated by radical Islamists because she supports the U.S.-led war on terrorism, brushed off the concerns.
"I am not scared. I am thinking of my mission," she told an AP reporter on the plane.
Musharraf has seen his popularity plunge recently, and the rapprochement with Bhutto appears aimed at salvaging his political base.
He was easily re-elected as president by lawmakers Oct. 6. However, the Supreme Court is examining the legality of the victory and the corruption amnesty.
Bhutto said she doubted the judges would stop either, but acknowledged her talks with Musharraf had a way to go.
Bhutto wants a constitutional amendment to lift a bar on anyone serving more than two terms as prime minister and safeguards to keep the January ballot fair.
"The big thing is I'm back home and I'm glad that Gen. Musharraf's regime has not interrupted my welcome," she said. "While there has been some small progress, there is a lot more yet that needs to be done."