ISLAMABAD (AFP) — Former Pakistani premier Benazir Bhutto said Thursday she was "optimistic" about a power-sharing deal with President Pervez Musharraf and hinted she would not obstruct his re-election bid this weekend.
Bhutto said nothing had yet been finalised on a so-called national reconciliation agreement that would grant her an amnesty on the corruption charges that drove her into exile eight years ago.
But she appeared to back down from an earlier threat that MPs from her Pakistan People's Party would resign from parliament, a move that would have robbed Saturday's presidential election of any semblance of credibility.
The Pakistani government also said that a deal was expected soon.
Musharraf, a key US ally who seized power in the nuclear-armed nation in 1999, is expected to win a second term but would benefit from Bhutto's support ahead of general elections due in early 2008.
Musharraf still faces last-ditch Supreme Court challenges against the legitimacy of the election, which will be carried out by a ballot of the two national houses of parliament and four provincial assemblies.
"We are optimistic today but I cannot say everything is finalised," Bhutto, 54, told reporters after a two-day meeting of her party in London to discuss the deal.
The two-time prime minister said that if a definitive deal is reached, her party members would not quit parliament, but would instead either vote for their own candidate in the polls or abstain.
To seal the deal Bhutto is demanding that Musharraf should grant her an amnesty, give up his power to dismiss parliament and the prime minister and change the constitution so that premiers can serve a third term.
Bhutto said she expected a final decision on Friday. Faxes of the draft agreement with amendments by each side were being sent between Islamabad and London throughout the night.
Bhutto has vowed to return to Pakistan by October 18. It will be her second homecoming after she was driven out of the country by military dictator Zia-ul-Haq in the 198Os.
In Islamabad, ministers were also hopeful after leading frantic talks to win over some of Musharraf's political allies who oppose any agreement with Bhutto.
"God willing, there will be an agreement, said Railways Minister Sheikh Rashid, a close Musharraf confidant.
"We do not need Pakistan People's Party votes but we need them to stay in the assembly for the sake of credibility," Rashid told AFP.
"If everyone else has resigned and only the sitting government elects Musharraf it will not be a good sign internationally. A civilian president should be close to the democratic forces."
Musharraf has said he will quit as army chief before November 15 if he is elected, but Bhutto reiterated a call for him to step down as a general before the polls.
The general has been in talks with Bhutto for a US-backed deal that would bring two western-friendly leaders together in a country wracked by violence linked to Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda network.
Islamic rebels holding more than 200 Pakistani soldiers in a troubled tribal belt bordering Afghanistan killed three of their hostages on Thursday, while 26 people died in violence in the frontier region the previous day.
Bhutto, who was prime minister from 1988 to 1990 and again from 1993 to 1996, says Musharraf's failure to restore full democracy has fuelled militancy.
Meanwhile the Supreme Court Thursday resumed hearing petitions filed by Musharraf's election rivals, former judge Wajihuddin Ahmad and Makhdoom Amin Fahim, the vice-president of Bhutto's party.
Their lawyers told the court that halting the election was in the national interest and would prevent a "chaotic situation" -- echoing Bhutto's warnings that there could be civil unrest if Musharraf does not back down.
The court is expected to rule on Friday.
Government officials warned Thursday that Musharraf has a "counter-strategy" if the court postpones the election, but did not elaborate.
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