KARACHI, Pakistan – Legions of supporters of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto converged on Karachi for her planned homecoming Thursday from eight years in self-exile and return to the center stage of Pakistan's volatile politics.
Brushing off fears of an attack by Islamic militants, she vowed Wednesday to restore democracy and to fight religious extremism. But there is public skepticism she can turn the bold rhetoric into reality.
"My return heralds for the people of Pakistan the turn of the wheel from dictatorship to democracy, from exploitation to empowerment, from violence to peace," Bhutto told reporters in Dubai ahead of the flight home.
Bhutto's arrival was expected to draw 100,000 or more people to the streets of this southern port city.
The path for her return was paved by negotiations with President Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who seized power in a 1999 coup and has promised to give up command of the army if he secures a new term as president. The talks yielded an amnesty covering the corruption cases that led Bhutto to leave Pakistan, and could see the archrivals team up in a U.S.-friendly alliance to fight al-Qaida and the Taliban.
Bhutto, 54, whose two elected governments between 1988 and 1996 were toppled amid allegations of corruption and mismanagement, is vying for a third term if her Pakistan People's Party can win parliamentary elections in January.
She described the situation in Pakistan, with rising militancy and enduring poverty, as "very grave."
"The internal situation is very dangerous and there is tension and danger on our frontiers. My heart hurts on seeing poor people without bread, clothing and shelter," she said at a news conference in Dubai, flanked by her husband and two daughters.
In Karachi, where loyalists created a carnival atmosphere with rallies and raucous music and dance, many people were dubious about promises of change.
"Let's see what she can do for us," said Mohammed Asif, a 27-year-old student in the dirt-poor district of Lyari, a Bhutto party stronghold. "She's been prime minister twice but she's done nothing for Lyari."
Inflation, unemployment and crime are the pressing matters in Lyari, where residents say doctors are too afraid of robbers to come to work at the state hospital.
The Pakistan People's Party said thousands of Bhutto supporters had already arrived in Karachi, a city of 15 million, and many more were expected overnight.
The party predicted more than 1 million people from across Pakistan would greet Bhutto. Other observers said 100,000 or so was more likely — still a far greater turnout than rival politicians could hope to muster.
Schools were scheduled to be closed Thursday, and police blocked access roads to the airport as a security precaution.
Some 2,500 paramilitary officers deployed around the airport and 10,000 more were on standby. Some 3,500 police, including seven bomb-clearing squads, and 5,000 party volunteers guarded Bhutto's route.
Authorities warned of the threat of suicide attacks and roadside bombings by Islamic militants.
The provincial government appealed to Bhutto to abandon plans for a snail's pace, 10-mile procession into the city, where she planned to speak at the tomb of Pakistan's founding father, Mohammed Ali Jinnah.
Officials said the slow trip — even in a shipping container fortified by bulletproof glass — would leave her vulnerable, and the main threat was from Taliban and al-Qaida loyalists.
An official in the provincial government, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, cited intelligence reports that three suicide bombers had been sent to Karachi by pro-Taliban militant leader Baitullah Mehsud.
"We have informed Ms. Bhutto and her team of the situation and advised them to cut short the program instead of going for an 18-20 hours-long procession, as this would be tantamount to inviting trouble," said Sindh province's home secretary, Ghulam Muhammad Mohtarem.
But Bhutto, who shares Musharraf's support of the U.S.-led war on terrorism, was undeterred.
"I am not afraid of any threat. My father sacrificed his life for the people and country," she said, referring to former prime minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, who was executed by Pakistan's last military ruler in 1979.
"I do not believe that any true Muslim will make an attack on me, because Islam forbids attacks on women and Muslims know that if they attack a woman they will burn in hell," Bhutto said at the Dubai news conference.
She has recently courted controversy by saying she would cooperate with the U.S. military in targeting Osama bin Laden, who is believed hiding in Pakistan's tribal region along the border with Afghanistan.
Billboards proclaiming Bhutto as the country's savior festooned the route from the airport. "Pakistan Welcomes Its Hope Back Home," proclaimed one, showing a portrait of Bhutto with rays of sunlight shining from behind her white head scarf.
Bhutto's political future, and the possible alliance with Musharraf, will depend on her party's showing in the elections.
Musharraf has seen his popularity plunge since a failed attempt to oust the country's top judge last spring. The deal with Bhutto appears aimed at boosting his political base as he seeks to extend his rule.