NYT : Bhutto Readies Homecoming Amid Security Fears

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Bhutto Readies Homecoming Amid Security Fears

By CARLOTTA GALL | October 27, 2007

LARKANA, Pakistan, Oct. 25— At the gate of the Bhutto family home here, a swarthy guard, almost as wide as he is tall, stands watch, magazines of ammunition strapped to his chest and an embroidered cap on his head. No one is allowed even a peek through the gate, he said.

Known here simply as Prime Minister’s house, this is the country home of the opposition leader and former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto. It was also the home of her father, who had served as prime minister until he was overthrown in a coup and hanged by the military dictator, Gen. Zia ul-Haq.

Festive colored lights are looped over the high walls of the compound in readiness for the celebration of her homecoming after eight years abroad in self-imposed exile. Yet Ms. Bhutto, who returned to the port city of Karachi last Thursday, has delayed her visit here, apparently for security concerns. She is now expected on Saturday.

Since two bomb blasts wrecked her arrival procession in Karachi last Thursday and killed 140 people, most of them her party supporters, she has ventured out of her home in Karachi only on short forays to offer prayers or to visit the wounded and bereaved.

She has said that there had been more threats on her life and has called on the government to provide her with better security.

She and her staff, meanwhile, are rapidly rethinking how to run an election campaign in the rural areas, where the base of her support lies, without holding the big rallies and processions that are the political tradition here.

The cotton and rice farmers of Ms. Bhutto’s home district of Larkana live in mud-brick homes, often with no electricity or television. Barefoot children herd goats and water buffalo through scrub land, and women dry cow dung on the walls of their homes to use for cooking fuel.

Larkana is not only poor, but also one of the most lawless districts of the southern province of Sindh, where people complain of the corrupt police and of armed robbers roaming in the untracked countryside.

The chief of police, Mazhar Ali Sheik, who was transferred from another part of Sindh, the big city of Hyderabad, just two weeks ago to oversee security for Ms. Bhutto’s return, admits violence and criminality is worse in Larkana than elsewhere in the province.

“There is kidnapping, vehicle theft, tribal feuds, and murders,” he said. “Since historical times, this kind of crime has been dominating this area.” But he said that sectarian or jihadist groups did not have a foothold here and that the local people and the police would spot outsiders quickly.

“I think it will be all right, and her stay will be peaceful,” he said. Nevertheless, he requested 300 more police officers to assist in security, he said.

For Ms. Bhutto, whose family has been the feudal lords of some 12,000 acres of farmland here for decades, the district of Larkana, and her own village, Naudero, should be the safest place, both physically and politically. The town and surrounding villages are overwhelmingly loyal to the memory of her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the founder of the Pakistan Peoples Party, and to her, his eldest born and political successor. The feudal system is so strong in rural areas of Pakistan that the people’s allegiance to their landlords converts into unstinting loyalty at the polls.

“Since Oct. 18 we have been anxiously awaiting her,” said Abdul Ghafoor Leghari, 51. “She is our leader.”

Mr. Leghari is the keeper of the white-domed mausoleum where her father, who was executed in 1979, and her two brothers, who also met violent deaths, are buried along with seven generations of Bhuttos. Ms. Bhutto intends to come Saturday, to visit her father’s grave and lay claim again to his legacy.

“The whole place has been cleaned, and the whole village has been celebrating her arrival,” he said. He dismissed suggestions that she was delaying because of fears for her security. “She is the daughter of a martyr; she is not a coward.”

In Larkana, her supporters at the party office said the bomb attacks in Karachi last Thursday were an attempt to intimidate them. Three people from Larkana died in the explosions and three were wounded, they said.

“The workers will not be scared. They are ready to sacrifice their lives,” said Saleem Soomro, the president of the People’s Youth, the party’s wing for young graduates. “Pakistan’s stability and the well-being of the young people depend on her.”

There is one voice of opposition, though, that will irritate Ms. Bhutto. It is that of her own sister-in-law, Ghinwa Bhutto, who is the Lebanese widow of her second brother, Murtaza, and who arrived in Larkana ahead of Ms. Bhutto this week.

The two women have been bitter rivals since Murtaza was gunned down by police officers yards from his home in Karachi in 1996, during Ms. Bhutto’s second term as prime minister. His widow holds Ms. Bhutto responsible for his death and now leads a rival faction of the Pakistan Peoples Party in the name of her dead husband.

Ghinwa Bhutto said in an interview here that she intended to run in the parliamentary elections set for January, in an adjacent constituency to Ms. Bhutto’s. Although her following remains small compared to that of the former prime minister, her presence will be a thorn in Ms. Bhutto’s side, and possibly a security concern. Murtaza Bhutto’s supporters denied there would be trouble from their side.

“Benazir is also our sister,” said Abdul Hamid, 18, a Murtaza supporter who was sitting outside the party office. “It is not dangerous to come here. This is her own village,” he said.

Security aside, Ms. Bhutto will have her work cut out to meet expectations, even here in her home district. The poverty of the rural population is evident. People complain of inflation, unemployment and lawlessness, and they expect Ms. Bhutto to change that.

“There is no other leader than her in Pakistan,” said Raza Muhammad, 51, a tailor with a shop in Larkana. “She is the best option for the poor.”

“If she comes to power, things will improve,” said Mushtaq Ahmed, 30, a rickshaw driver who said he barely made $2 a day.

“Larkana got a lot of benefits when she was in power before,” he said. “Now we hear a lot of money is coming from the West, but the contractors get away with everything.”

Ms. Bhutto’s supporters dismissed accusations that she amassed great wealth during her time in power as the jealousy of rivals. Ejaz Ahmed Bhatti, an advocate in Larkana, blamed her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, for the corruption.

“Mohtarma Bhutto is the top leader,” he said, using an honorific title that means “respected one.”

“She is highly qualified, motivated, intelligent and loyal,” he added. “She is worried about the poor people. There is no match for her.”