Pakistani president meets with liberal opposition leader

Reports say they discussed sharing power, which the West might back.

Published July 29, 2007

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - President Pervez Musharraf held secret talks with opposition leader and former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, a government minister said Saturday. Media widely reported that the once-bitter rivals discussed a power-sharing deal.

Such an alliance could strengthen the increasingly embattled Gen. Musharraf by bringing the secular, liberal opposition into his government amid growing concern about a rise in Islamic militancy. Analysts said Pakistan's Western allies would welcome that.

But newspaper and television reports said the talks stalled over Bhutto's insistence that Musharraf, a key U.S. ally in fighting terrorism, must quit his military post to remain president.

Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, the minister for railways, told the Associated Press that Musharraf and Bhutto "held a successful meeting" in the United Arab Emirates on Friday. He would not elaborate on the talks.

Bhutto, leader of the secular Pakistan People's Party, told Pakistani TV station KTN, "Whatever we have done and are doing it is for democracy and social and economic rights of the people of Pakistan."

Besides insisting that Musharraf quit the military, Bhutto has said he must give up the power to fire the prime minister and dissolve Parliament.

The United States and Britain would welcome a Musharraf-Bhutto deal because it would strengthen Musharraf's political capital and, therefore, his ability to combat militancy while also pushing the country back toward democracy, said Rasul Bakhsh Rais, a professor of political science at Lahore University of Management Sciences.

"They want to strengthen Musharraf, who has been supporting the war on terrorism, and his further weakening would damage their cause in Afghanistan," Rais said. "The second reason is that they want peaceful transition in Pakistan to elected government."