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NEW YORK, Oct 20: The Bush administration concluded over the summer that a power-sharing deal with Pakistan People’s Party leader Benazir Bhutto “might be the only way that could keep General Pervez Musharraf from being toppled”.

But the violence that greeted Ms Bhutto on her return after eight years in exile and the finger-pointing between her camp and General Musharraf’s after the attack on her motorcade has raised questions about whether the tenuous deal that the United States helped midwife can survive, said the New York Times on Saturday.

In an analysis of the so called ‘understanding’ or deal between President Musharraf and Ms Bhutto, the Times said: “Bush administration officials on Friday publicly played down the potential for a deepening rift between General Musharraf and Ms Bhutto, pointing out that the opposition leader herself had praised the rescue efforts of Pakistan’s security forces after Thursday’s attack and that General Musharraf had called Ms Bhutto to make sure she was safe after the blast. “

About the accord, the Times said that the Bush administration “began quietly nurturing the accord, under which Ms Bhutto’s party did not boycott General Musharraf’s election last month, and the president issued a decree granting Ms Bhutto and others amnesty for recent corruption charges, opening the way for her return”.

To lay the groundwork for Benazir Bhutto’s return to Pakistan, some of the highest ranking officials in the Bush administration lavished attention on her as they worked to broker a power-sharing arrangement.

Ms Bhutto used her time in exile to nurture influential connections within Washington’s power corridors. Still, the Bush administration had long kept her at arm’s length, in large part out of deference to General Musharraf, who cast his lot with the White House after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Two years ago, Ms Bhutto could not even get the State Department’s top official for South Asia to show up at a dinner party in her honor. (A desk officer in charge of Pakistan was sent instead.)

But in recent months that began to change. The American courtship of Ms Bhutto included a private dinner and a jet ride with Zalmay Khalilzad, the American ambassador to the United Nations and, over the last month, several telephone calls to Ms Bhutto from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the Times said.

In turning back to Ms Bhutto, administration officials said they acted with reluctance, after General Musharraf’s own political missteps and the mounting opposition to his military government had weakened his grip on power and threatened to plunge Pakistan deeper into turmoil.

The administration told the newspaper that Ms Rice stepped up her personal involvement last month, when it seemed possible that General Musharraf’s other political nemesis, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharifm would make his own bid to return to power, and upset the deal.

The newspaper said: “Still, even now, there is no great love in the Bush administration for Ms Bhutto … While American intelligence officials have been frustrated at times with General Musharraf’s record in fighting the Islamic militants in northern Pakistan, they have also found a small level of comfort in dealing with him. “

Now they worry that Ms Bhutto’s re-entry to Pakistan’s political scene will complicate their lagging efforts to pursue insurgents from Al Qaeda and the Taliban, the newspaper maintained.

It said that the State Department bureaucrats also fret that her turbulent past will further inflame an already volatile country. Inside and outside the American bureaucracy, there remains deep skepticism that the arrangement between two longtime enemies has a chance for long-term success.

“This backroom deal I think is going to explode in our face,” said Bruce Riedel, who advised three presidents on South Asian issues, told the newspaper in a interview. “Ms Bhutto and Mr Musharraf detest each other, and the concept that they can somehow work collaboratively is a real stretch.”

Before she left for Pakistan and since her return, Ms Bhutto has publicly pressed an agenda that should please American policy makers: advocating democracy and attacking suicide bombing and Islamic militancy in words more forceful than those normally used by General Musharraf, the Times noted adding “still, there is concern among American officials that, given rising anti-Americanism inside Pakistan, eventually she and General Musharraf could compete for public support by showing who is less beholden to the White House – especially on matters like attacking Al Qaeda’s haven in Pakistan’s tribal areas”.

In their push to engineer a pact between Ms Bhutto and General Musharraf, American officials for several months held private meetings in Islamabad, New York and Washington. The sessions included a dinner for Ms Bhutto in New York in August with Mr Khalilzad, followed several weeks later by a shared ride on a private jet to Aspen, Colorado, where both addressed a conference of corporate leaders.

The newspaper claimed that in addition to her conversations with Ms Bhutto, Ms Rice had several phone conversations with General Musharraf, including one in which she called him at 2am. Pakistan time to urge him not to seize emergency powers, and noted that John D. Negroponte, the deputy secretary of state, and Richard A. Boucher, the top State Department official for Pakistan, went to Islamabad to press General Musharraf into the deal.

For Ms Bhutto, the newspaper observed , “years of relentless networking among America’s political, diplomatic and media elite also helped to vault her back into position to lead one of the United States’ most critical allies … She is a networker par excellence, and she’s been keeping her contacts,” said Karl F. Inderfurth, former assistant secretary of state for South Asia who dined across the table from her at a dinner party during her last swing through Washington, in September.

Ms Bhutto was first introduced to America’s political power brokers in 1984, via the dinner party circuit. Peter Galbraith, whose family was friends with the Bhutto family and who at the time was on the staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, escorted the visiting Ms Bhutto around Washington, the Times recalled.

When she herself later became the first woman elected prime minister of a Muslim country, hers was the first state dinner given by President George Bush on June 6, 1989.

She also maintained her close ties to Washington during the Clinton administration, both while she was prime minister and afterward, when she was living in exile in London, Dubai and New York after being forced from power, accused of corruption. In 1998, Ms Bhutto asked Mark Siegel, a well-connected Democratic Party operative, to set up a meeting for her at the White House with Hillary Rodham Clinton.

One close Bhutto friend described that meeting as “intimate and warm,” and as one that had touched, at Ms Bhutto’s prompting, on Mrs. Clinton’s personal struggles in the midst of the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

Mr Riedel, who attended the meeting, said that most of the meeting was consumed by Ms Bhutto pressing her case on a range of issues, from Pakistani politics and women’s rights to the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan.

“I think that Benazir did about 99 per cent of the talking,” he said.

However, the newspaper said that unresolved questions about the attack have added a new layer of distrust to relations between Ms Bhutto and the government, as well as new uncertainties for the Bush administration policy.

On Friday, American officials told the Times that there was no clear basis for confidence that the two leaders could work cooperatively. Now that Ms Bhutto has returned to the country, they acknowledged that their control over events was limited, as Thursday’s bombing showed.

“There’s really not much left to say or do at this point,” one Bush administration official said. “But there’s no clear indication that there is a foundation for both sides to work together cooperatively.”