updated 10/16/2007 7:10:28 PM ET 2007-10-16T23:10:28

Benazir Bhutto’s return from exile could carry Pakistan further along the road to civilian rule. However, her stance as a defender of democracy has been undermined by recent negotiations with the country’s military strongman, President Gen. Pervez Musharraf.

Bhutto, two-time prime minister and scion of Pakistan’s pre-eminent political family, is expected to arrive in Karachi on Thursday, eight years after she left the country to avoid arrest on graft charges. Musharraf has dropped the charges against her in exchange for her support.

Bhutto’s return is being closely watched by the West because Pakistan is a key player in the fight against terrorism.

If Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party does well in parliamentary elections in January, she and Musharraf could make an alliance — both share a pro-U.S. view against terrorism.

The government has asked Bhutto to delay her comeback because of fears of attacks from Islamic extremists. However, plans are going ahead for a celebration that her party hopes will draw 1 million people onto the streets of the country’s biggest city.

“It will be a new milestone in the political history of the country,” said Sherry Rehman, the party’s information secretary.

Political uncertainty
Bhutto is launching her comeback at a time of particular uncertainty.

Musharraf has vowed to quit the powerful post of army chief if he secures another five-year presidential term. He is now echoing U.S. calls for moderates, including Bhutto, to join forces against the spreading influence of Islamic extremists.

Musharraf swept the elections on Oct. 6. However, the Supreme Court is still examining opposition challenges to his eligibility for another term and a corruption amnesty he granted last week to Bhutto and other politicians. The amnesty has drawn fierce criticism.

Bhutto, 54, claims the corruption charges against her were politically motivated. Still, Swiss authorities convicted her of money laundering in 2003 and ordered her to pay $11 million to the Pakistani government. The conviction was automatically thrown out when she contested it, but the case remains under investigation.

Irate commentators in Pakistan’s Sunday newspapers said the amnesty would only encourage more larceny by corrupt politicians they likened to parasites and piranhas.

“Musharraf has been badly damaged; Benazir has been even more badly damaged, perhaps fatally. That’s the only silver lining,” columnist Humayun Gauhar wrote in The Nation.

Bhutto's background
During her premierships between 1988 and 1996, Bhutto clashed with the army-led establishment. At the time, Pakistan backed the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan and pushed on with its nuclear weapons program. Bhutto has said she would let U.N. investigators question Abdul Qadeer Khan, the nuclear expert blamed for leaking Pakistani weapons technology to Iran and North Korea, who was pardoned by Musharraf.

Born into a wealthy landowning family, Bhutto studied at Oxford and Harvard and inherited the political mantle of her father, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. A former president and prime minister, he was toppled in 1977 by Pakistan’s previous military ruler, Gen. Zia ul-Haq, and executed two years later.

Under Zia, Benazir Bhutto was detained several times, then released into exile in England in 1984. Two years later, she returned to lead mass rallies calling for Zia to step down.

In 1987, Bhutto agreed to an arranged marriage with Asif Ali Zardari. The Karachi businessman later attracted the nickname “Mr. 10 percent” for allegedly pocketing commissions in return for government contracts.

Zia died in a mysterious plane crash in 1988, clearing the way for the first free elections in 11 years.

In the following months, Bhutto gave birth to the first of her three children, led her party to an election victory, and in December 1988, and became the first woman to lead a modern Muslim nation.

Brothers die under odd circumstances
Her family took a blow in 1996, when her younger brother, Murtaza Bhutto, died in a gunbattle with police outside his home in Karachi. Bhutto’s mother threatened to file murder charges against her and Zardari. Her youngest brother, Shahnawaz, had died under unexplained circumstances in France a decade earlier.

Bhutto accused President Farooq Leghari of involvement in Murtaza’s death, and Leghari dismissed her second government amid fresh allegations of misrule.

Despite her arranged marriage and traditional headscarf, she advocates modernizing a country often associated with Islamic extremism. However, some Pakistanis doubt her good intentions.

“Everybody knows what Zardari did when she was in power,” said Jan Khan, a 38-year-old security guard in the capital, Islamabad. Bhutto’s new pledges are “just slogans and we don’t know if they will ever be fulfilled.”

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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