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In Pakistan, can Bhutto distance herself from Musharraf?

As the former prime minister tries to unify the opposition to Pakistan's president, many wonder if her past dealings with him will make her unpopular.

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Former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto's long political balancing act between President Pervez Musharraf and his political opposition seems to have finally come to an end, observers here say, despite Washington's continuing effort to resuscitate a deal between the two leaders.

But even as Ms. Bhutto appears to throw herself into convening a unified opposition movement against President Musharraf, her prolonged negotiations to reach a powersharing agreement with him have earned her the distrust and skepticism of many other leaders in the opposition ranks.

In the same way, Washington's repeated urging for Musharraf and Bhutto to reconcile may have scuttled the former prime minister's political viability by causing her to appear, like Musharraf, to be an intimate of Washington.

"The deal" between Pervez Musharraf and Bhutto "is redundant," says Hassan Askari Rizvi, a political consultant. "Any politician who sits with Musharraf, their political career is over."

After a visit last weekend by US Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte in which he articulated Washington's reluctant but continued support for Musharraf, Bhutto is faced with a stark choice between a path to potential power that either runs through power politics or popular politics.

"She may feel the advantage lies with Musharraf" after America's newest diplomatic gesture, says Shafqat Mahmood, a political analyst. "But as far as public opinion goes, she would lose enormous popular support," by joining ranks with him.

With the country under effective martial law, and as Taliban-inspired militants wage war against the Pakistani Army in the region bordering Afghanistan, top US envoy Mr. Negroponte suggested "reconciliation between political moderates" would be "the most constructive way forward" to maintain Musharraf as an ally in the war on terror.

But in separate conversations, both Musharraf and Bhutto conveyed to Negroponte that there was little space for negotiations left.

While Bhutto, Mr. Rizvi says, was able to bounce back from her initial contacts with Musharraf earlier this year, his declaration of a state of emergency this month has substantially raised the stakes.

"The substance of Negroponte's visit seems to be that, even though the US disagrees with the imposition of emergency [rule], they are still willing to work with him," says Rizvi. Negroponte's attempts to revive Bhutto-Musharraf talks, he says "is totally out of step with the ground reality in the country."

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