Exiled politician plans her return to power in Pakistan; Benazir Bhutto talks to small group in Howard County


Nasir Chaudhry's home on a Columbia cul-de-sac is the frequent destination of academics and policy experts who want to weigh in on South Asian politics. Yesterday, former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto strolled through his front door.

"This is a special treat," said Chaudhry, founder and president of the Pakistan-American League. The group seeks to influence public life in Pakistan and relations between the two countries. Chaudhry, a 53-year-old dentist, revels in a self-proclaimed role as "private diplomat." Framed photographs in his living room show him shaking hands with Vice President Al Gore and former Vice President Dan Quayle.

"Today, we get a chance to talk to someone who could really affect things instead of just talking about it," he said. "It's not every day you get Benazir Bhutto to come for lunch."

He invited Bhutto to his home for the event, a combination lunch/discussion/media briefing.

Bhutto, the best-known figure of a clan that has been called Pakistan's version of the Kennedys, was led into the basement of Chaudhry's home. She sat surrounded by urns, wall hangings, ornate prayer rugs and a group of about 10 people, most of whom hung on her every word.

Bhutto, who was educated at Radcliffe and Oxford, carries herself with a polished, undaunted bearing and is intimate with triumph, tragedy, power and the loss of it.

She is the first woman of an Islamic nation to become prime minister of her country. She was elected prime minister twice and ousted twice. She leads Pakistan's main opposition party from afar, having been forced into exile after recently being convicted in absentia of corruption. She is the daughter of a prime minister who was ousted from office and then executed, the wife of a man held on charges of corruption, the sister of a man who became her political foe and was killed while opposing her.

From her home in London, Bhutto is clearly angling to become a player again in Pakistani elective politics, even though the country's leader, Army chief Pervez Musharraf, has not indicated that he will allow national elections soon.

Pakistan, a developing country of about 140 million, is in deep turmoil. Though it has few resources, the 53-year-old nation sank much of its money recently into an escalating nuclear arms race with India. The two nations are also at loggerheads over their shared border and a tense dispute over territory near northern India. Preoccupied with its struggles, Pakistan's government has, some international experts say, neglected the nuts-and-bolts of running the nation, leaving it wracked by poverty and uncertainty.

Yesterday, Bhutto listed issues she said she would like to address, if given the chance again.

In a soft British accent, she offered plans for ending financial and political corruption, for finding a solution to border and sovereignty disputes involving India, including nuclear testing. She called for the release of political prisoners; her husband, former investment minister Asif Ali Zardari, is in jail in Pakistan.

She said her country was acting as it did during the Cold War, when Pakistan was propped up partly by the United States to maintain the balance of power in South Asia.

"We're caught in a time warp, and it's not clear we are going to get out of a time warp," she said, referring to Pakistan.

"I never thought I'd live to see the day nuclear devices were brought to reality," she said of the recent testing of nuclear weapons by her country.

"We have to create an ambience" between Pakistan and India so the two can have "safe borders."

The reporters in attendance peppered her with policy questions and questioned her on the inner workings of the government. Chaudhry's friends, each with Pakistani ties, were mostly silent, preferring to listen and ask an occasional question.

Chaudhry is well-aware that Bhutto would be arrested if she set foot in Pakistan. But he is hopeful that she will one day be allowed to participate in the country's politics.

"If democracy is restored, she will be one of the most viable people to lead us," said Chaudhry, who has lived in the United States for 24 years. "Today is a wonderful day for me, because it continues dialogue. It continues people talking," he said.

Chaudhry said he considers Bhutto a friend, having met her in the mid-1980s, just before her first election as prime minister in 1988. "But I have many friends," he said, noting that he is also close with the military leadership and with former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, recently sentenced to life in prison.

"What a day it would be if I could host Prime Minister Bhutto and all of the people who call themselves her enemy, get them all together to meet face to face," Chaudhry said. "Maybe I could do that at my little home in Columbia."

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