ISLAMABAD, Pakistan &

Detained opposition leader Benazir Bhutto said today she hopes to form a national unity government to replace President Gen. Pervez Musharraf ahead of elections, and is contacting other opposition parties to get them on board.




"I am talking to the other opposition parties to find out whether they are in a position to come together," she told The Associated Press in a telephone interview from the home in Lahore where she is under house arrest. "We need to see whether we can come up with an interim government of national consensus to whom power can be handed."




Bhutto left open the question of whether she, or someone else, would lead such a government, saying it was a subject that would have to be worked out in negotiations.




But she said a consensus must be reached that would ensure an orderly transition should Musharraf agree to step down.




The general has so far refused, telling AP on Wednesday he plans to relinquish his role as army chief by the end of November, heralding a return to civilian rule. So far, he has been successful in keeping Pakistan's quarreling opposition parties divided and he has rejected Western pressure to quickly end the emergency.




Deepening the crisis, unidentified protesters opened "indiscriminate gunfire" in Karachi, killing two boys ages 11 and 12, police officer Aslam Gujjar said. They were the first reported deaths in unrest during the state of emergency.




Supporters of Bhutto have clashed with police in the same violence-ridden neighborhood since morning. The protesters, angry at Bhutto's house arrest, traded fire with police who also used tear gas to try and disperse them.




Police and hospital officials said eight protesters and one policeman suffered gunshot wounds and that firing was continuing.




Bhutto made the comments shortly after a visit from Bryan Hunt, the U.S. consul general in the eastern Pakistani city. Hunt was allowed to cross the barricades and heavy police cordon surrounding the house where Bhutto has been confined since Tuesday.




He emerged an hour later and said he had told Bhutto of Washington's wish for Musharraf to lift the state of emergency, quit as army chief and free opposition politicians and the media.




"We need to move as rapidly as possible to have free and fair elections held on time," Hunt said.




Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte is due to visit Pakistan on Friday and is expected to push for him to restore the constitution and free thousands of arrested opponents.




Bhutto said Washington is concerned about a power vacuum in Pakistan, and wanted to know if she would still consider working with Musharraf.




"He came to find out whether I could work with Gen. Musharraf, and I told him that it was very difficult to work with someone who instead of taking us toward democracy took us back toward military dictatorship," she said.




Bhutto said she tried to allay Washington's concern about what would happen to this nuclear-armed nation if Musharraf were forced out, saying she shared the Americans misgivings and that a strategy for an orderly transition was a must.




The Americans "worry about what would happen if there was not a smooth transition, and they worry about what would happen if Musharraf left and there would be a vacuum. So that is a concern, and a valid concern," she said. "I share that thought, too. In fact, once Gen. Musharraf agrees to go, we need to have an exit strategy. I think an exit strategy is very important."




Bhutto confirmed she had been in contact by phone Wednesday with exiled former prime minister Nawaz Sharif &

an archrival &

about working together, but had not yet broached the subject of a unity government with him. She said she was due to speak to him again later in the day.




Bhutto returned from self-imposed exile last month to campaign for a third term as prime minister. She was greeted by a massive suicide bombing that killed 145 people following her welcome procession through the streets of the southern city of Karachi. She has since been detained twice by Musharraf while planning further rallies.




Bhutto claimed Musharraf's support within the military &

particularly below the high command &

was eroding as the crisis over his declaration of a state of emergency deepened.




"I believe the support within the military is waning," she said. "I sense an enormous disquiet, the army feels rudderless, it feels leaderless. It feels its job is to defend the motherland, and instead it finds itself embroiled in a controversial domestic role."




She provided no evidence, and Musharraf has scoffed at such talk, telling the AP that the army's loyalty to him is absolute and that his men would never turn against him.




"People don't know our army ... They followed me not because of the rank but because of the respect they hold for me. I have no doubt on the loyalty of this army. Never will this happen against me," he said.




Thursday marks the end of the current Parliament's five-year term. Musharraf's concurrent presidential mandate also expires today, though he has extended it by calling the state of emergency that has cast Pakistan into a deep political crisis.




A caretaker administration will be charged with guiding Pakistan toward parliamentary elections to be held by Jan. 9. The government said the lineup would be announced Friday and then sworn in.




The vote is supposed to complete the restoration of democratic rule in Pakistan, eight years after Musharraf seized power in a bloodless coup.




However, both opposition parties and Western governments say that the vote cannot be considered free and fair unless the general quickly lifts the emergency, which many in Pakistan are equating with martial law.




Musharraf seized extraordinary powers on Nov. — and used them to detain thousands of opposition and human rights activists, purge the senior judiciary and black out independent TV news channels.




The United States still counts Musharraf as a stalwart ally in its war on terror. But it wants him to share power with other moderates, such as Bhutto, to harness more political support for Pakistan's struggle against Islamic extremists while also ending military rule.




Musharraf says the main purpose of the emergency is to protect the effort against extremism from interfering judges and political turbulence.




He said rising Islamic militancy required him to stay in control of the troubled nation though left the door open for future cooperation with Bhutto if she wins the January vote.




At one point in the phone interview with Bhutto, as she discussed the role of the army in Pakistani politics, the phone line to the home where she is being held was cut. When a connection finally was re-established, she said she suspected the line failure might have been deliberate.




"When you live in Pakistan you get very, very suspicious," she said.