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Thousands greet Bhutto in opponent's stronghold

A bitter Pakistani election campaign widely seen as a referendum on ousted Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto entered its final phase here early today as tens of thousands of her supporters welcomed her into enemy territory. Bhutto's crowd far outnumbered that of a chief opponent, Nawaz Sharif, even though Pakistan's second-largest city is his longtime power base and a key battleground in Wednesday's election.

Provincial officials had refused to give Bhutto a rally permit. But crowds were so thick as she entered this historic city late Monday that she quit her slow-moving procession of honking cars and flag-waving supporters only partway down a planned parade route.

In contrast, only a few thousand people waved signs, cheered and blew whistles as Sharif led his own supporters to Mochi Gate, at the edge of the Mogul-era walled inner city, for a final rally and speech.

"Inshallah, we shall win," he shouted to reporters, as aides threw stacks of rupee notes to the crowds and fireworks lit the misty night sky.

By law, all campaigning must stop today. Pakistan's 48.6-million voters go to the polls Wednesday to elect 217 members of the National Assembly in Islamabad.

The election gives the embattled 37-year-old Bhutto and her Pakistan People's Party another chance at power 11 weeks after President Ghulam Ishaq Khan dismissed her 20-month-old government for alleged corruption, nepotism and abuse of power.

Bhutto's chief opponents, Sharif, 41, and caretaker Prime Minister Ghulam Mustafa Jatoi, 59, joined together with orthodox Moslem groups in a fractious coalition of 19 parties united only in their goal of defeating the Islamic world's lone woman leader.

"The opposition had difficulty getting together," conceded Husain Haqqani, a spokesman for Jatoi. "There's been a lot of internal conflict. And Benazir has taken advantage of that."

Bhutto also benefited from the caretaker government's increasingly clumsy attempts to prosecute her and her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, for alleged corruption.

Bhutto has been charged in six cases and potentially faces a seven-year ban from holding political office. Zardari was granted bail Sunday after 11 days in jail for alleged extortion and bank fraud.

Pakistan is America's closest ally in the region. Relations grew strained after Bhutto's abrupt dismissal, however, and Washington froze $564-million in promised economic and military aid over Pakistan's apparent nuclear weapons development program.

Most analysts expect a lower turnout than in 1988, when Bhutto came to power.

Political experts in Pakistan say that neither party is likely to win a clear majority of National Assembly seats, making a weak coalition government likely.

An international delegation of 39 election observers will monitor voting and counting in selected areas.