WaPo : Bhutto Visits Ancestral Homeland Under Tight Security

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Bhutto Visits Ancestral Homeland Under Tight Security

By Griff Witte | Washington Post Foreign Service | October 27, 2007

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Oct. 27 -- Under extraordinarily tight security, former prime minister Benazir Bhutto returned to her ancestral homeland Saturday in her first major move since an assassination attempt against her last week claimed 140 lives.

In a quick and tightly scripted visit, Bhutto paid respects at the tomb of her father, former prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, and waved to a crowd of thousands that had gathered to mark her homecoming after eight years of exile. But Bhutto did not speak to the assembled mass of flag-waving supporters, and concerns about a possible follow-up attack seemed to dictate every aspect of the trip.

Her convoy, which included vehicles mounted with machine guns, sped along the route from the airport to the tomb in the village of Garhi Khuda Baksh. Only bodyguards and members of the media were allowed near.

Bhutto's vehicle, a white, bullet-proof SUV, was equipped with a hatch in the roof, flanked by two metal slabs. At several points, she emerged to show her face to local backers who worship the Bhutto name with an almost religious fervor.

Once inside the tomb -- a five-domed, white marble giant that is still being built more than a decade after work began -- a solemn-looking Bhutto laid rose petals over the grave of her father, who was hanged in 1979 by Pakistan's then-dictator, Gen. Zia ul-Haq.

Bhutto, who is campaigning to win back her job as prime minister, flew to Pakistan last Thursday, arriving in the port city of Karachi. Hundreds of thousands of people turned out to welcome her. But two explosions -- at least one caused by a suicide bomber -- struck her convoy as it inched through the streets. Bhutto emerged unscathed, but hundreds of people were injured in addition to the dead.

For more than a week afterward, Bhutto, 54, was sequestered in her family compound in Karachi, although she made brief, unannounced forays to visit wounded supporters at city hospitals. She has said repeatedly since the attack that she believes she is still under threat, and she has complained that the government has not done enough to ensure her safety.

Bhutto cut a deal with President Pervez Musharraf to return to Pakistan, though she has accused rogue government officials of conspiring with Islamic extremists to assassinate her. The government has vehemently denied the charge.

The security concerns pose a considerable challenge for Bhutto and for Pakistan as parliamentary elections that are due by January draw near. Bhutto, whose Pakistan People's Party has long relied on mass rallies to drum up support, has said her party is talking with political consultants about other, less dangerous campaign tactics, including tape-recorded messages

On Saturday, Bhutto's personal bodyguards -- many armed with automatic weapons -- appeared to be in charge of her protection, with government forces present in modest numbers.

In contrast to intensely urban Karachi, which is Pakistan's largest city, the verdant plains around Garhi Khuda Baksh are sparsely populated. Water lilies compete for space with water buffaloes in the endless network of canals that radiate from the Indus River and irrigate the surrounding countryside. Most of the residents are poor farmers, although some landowning families, like the Bhuttos, are exceptionally wealthy.

"It's wonderful to be home, to see the sugarcane fields, to see the paddy fields and to once again breathe the air from which I come," Bhutto told reporters after she emerged from the tomb.

Residents of the nearby town of Larkana said earlier this week that the attack against Bhutto had only deepened their affection for her.

"She got fame because she survived," said Hakim Ali, a 35-year-old rickshaw driver. Ali, who credited Bhutto with supplying jobs and keeping inflation down during her two terms in the 1980s and 1990s, said he would sacrifice himself to save her. "We will give her security. We don't trust the security given by the government, so we will provide it," he said.

But there were also indications that some would stay away from Bhutto's homecoming, even though they were happy to see her back.

"I will not go," said Mohammad Ramzan, 50, who owns a cloth store. "I love my life."