ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto called Thursday on opposition parties to form a national unity government to replace President Pervez Musharraf and steer Pakistan toward free elections, but said Washington is concerned about a power vacuum should the general be ousted.
Musharraf, meanwhile, finalized an interim administration to oversee the vote due Jan. 9. He appointed one of his loyalists, the Senate chairman, as caretaker prime minister. He will be sworn in on Friday, officials said. His appointment could further undermine government assertions the elections will be free and fair.
Bhutto's proposal, made in a telephone interview with The Associated Press, was quickly accepted by her archrival Nawaz Sharif, though the exiled former leader said neither of them was in a position to form a unity government until Musharraf is gone, and that the priority now is to get Supreme Court judges ousted by Musharraf reinstated. He also proposed an opposition boycott of the elections.
Bhutto said she is in the process of contacting other opposition parties to try to get them to join her.
"I am talking to the other opposition parties to find out whether they are in a position to come together," she said from the home in Lahore where she is under house arrest. "We need to see whether we can come up with an interim government of national consensus to whom power can be handed."
The comments came on the eve of a visit to Pakistan by Deputy U.S. Secretary of State John Negroponte, who is expected to demand Musharraf end emergency rule and free thousands of his political opponents.
U.S. President George W. Bush "wants the state of emergency to be lifted. And it is up to President Musharraf. He has the responsibility to help restore democracy to the country," White House press secretary Dana Perino said.
Bhutto left open the question of whether she, or someone else, would lead a unity government, saying it was a subject that would have to be worked out in negotiations.
But she said a consensus must be reached that would ensure an orderly transition should Musharraf agree to step down.
The general has so far refused, telling AP on Wednesday he plans to relinquish his role as army chief by the end of November but stay on as president. He has promised elections by Jan. 9, but has suggested they would take place under emergency rule he declared on Nov. 3.
Deepening the political crisis Thursday, unidentified protesters opened "indiscriminate gunfire" in Karachi, killing an adult protester and two boys aged 11 and 12, police said. They were the first reported deaths in unrest during the emergency.
Supporters of Bhutto had clashed with police in the same violence-ridden neighborhood since morning. The protesters, angry at Bhutto's house arrest, traded fire with police who also used tear gas to try to disperse them. Police and hospital officials said eight protesters and one policeman suffered gunshot wounds.
Meanwhile, police used tear gas and batons to break up a protest of about 200 supporters of Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party in the northwestern city of Peshawar. Four people were detained including two provincial leaders. A photographer was hurt by a tear gas shell.
The party said Mian Raza Rabbani, leader of the opposition in the Senate, was among dozens of other activists seized at protests mainly in the south. Police shot and injured a party worker in the town of Sakrand, it said.
A union between Bhutto and Sharif — the man Musharraf ousted in his 1999 coup — would undoubtedly turn the heat up on the general, who has so far been successful in keeping the country's quarreling opposition divided.
In a phone interview from his home in Saudi Arabia, Sharif said he supported the idea of a unity government, both before and perhaps even after the elections to help stabilize Pakistan.
"I will be very happy to extend any cooperation to rid the country of a dictator but it is important the judiciary is reinstated," Sharif said. "I said to her (Bhutto), although we have had differences in the recent past, I welcome your proposal. I want to move forward, but we must set a clear agenda for ourselves."
He said he had told Bhutto in their phone conversation that the opposition should boycott the elections and she said she would give her response within a day or two.
"Under these circumstances, I'm for a complete boycott of the elections," Sharif said. "How can you go into elections where your hands are tied up; leaders are all arrested and parties cannot meet; where there is a subservient judiciary and a hand-picked Election Commission?"
The appointment of Mohammedmian Soomro, chairman of the upper house of Parliament, to serve as caretaker prime minister will further fuel those suspicions. Soomro serves as acting president when Musharraf is out of the country.
Azim Chaudhry, a senior member of ruling party, said Musharraf had consulted them on Soomro's appointment and had their "full backing and support."
Asked for reaction, Bhutto spokesman Farhatullah Babar said that regardless of who was appointed, the elections would be unfair if Musharraf remained president.
Western pressure for Musharraf to end the emergency and free his political opponents is also growing, though Washington still considers the strongman an indispensable ally and would like to see him stay on in a power-sharing arrangement.
Bhutto received a visit Thursday from Bryan Hunt, the U.S. consul general in Lahore, who was allowed to cross the barricades and heavy police cordon surrounding the house where she is being confined.
"He came to find out whether I could work with Gen. Musharraf, and I told him that it was very difficult to work with someone who instead of taking us toward democracy took us back toward military dictatorship," she said.
Bhutto said she tried to allay Washington's concern about what would happen to the nuclear-armed nation if Musharraf were forced out, saying she shared the Americans' misgivings and that a strategy for an orderly transition was a must.
The Americans "worry about what would happen if there was not a smooth transition, and they worry about what would happen if Musharraf left and there would be a vacuum. So that is a concern, and a valid concern," she said. "I share that thought, too. In fact, once Gen. Musharraf agrees to go, we need to have an exit strategy. I think an exit strategy is very important."
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack reiterated the U.S. desire for detained political leaders — such as Bhutto — to be freed.
"It continues to be our firm position that political party leaders, people who want to peacefully participate in Pakistan's political life should be allowed to move freely," McCormack said in Washington. "This is clearly an important moment in Pakistan's history and it's important that all voices who want to express themselves in a peaceful manner be allowed to do so."
Bhutto confirmed she had been in contact by phone Wednesday with Sharif about working together, but had not yet broached the subject of a unity government with him.
Bhutto returned from self-imposed exile last month to campaign for a third term as prime minister. She was greeted by a massive homicide bombing that killed 145 people joining her procession through the streets of the southern city of Karachi. She has since been detained twice by Musharraf while planning further rallies.
Bhutto claimed Musharraf's support within the military — particularly below the high command — was eroding as the crisis over his declaration of a state of emergency deepened.
"I sense an enormous disquiet, the army feels rudderless, it feels leaderless," she said. "It feels its job is to defend the motherland, and instead it finds itself embroiled in a controversial domestic role."
She provided no evidence, and Musharraf has scoffed at such talk, telling The AP that the army's loyalty to him is absolute and that his men would never turn against him.
"People don't know our army. ... They followed me not because of the rank but because of the respect they hold for me. I have no doubt on the loyalty of this army. Never will this happen against me," he said.
Thursday marked the end of the current Parliament's five-year term. Musharraf's concurrent presidential mandate also expired Thursday, though he extended it by calling the state of emergency that has cast Pakistan into a deep political crisis.
A caretaker administration will be charged with guiding Pakistan toward parliamentary elections to be held by Jan. 9. The government said the lineup would be announced Friday and then sworn in. Observers are waiting to see whether the key appointees in the caretaker government will be Musharraf loyalists, which would further undermine the government's assertion that the elections will be free and fair.