Following Zia's sudden death in a plane crash last August, Bhutto began a cross-country campaign to gain the post of prime minister, promising to safeguard human rights, lift restrictions on the freedom of the press and improve the education and well-being of the country's poor.
Although pregnant, Bhutto campaigned to restore democracy. In a December election, she become the first democratically elected prime minister in the country in more than a decade.
"She is a woman who took enormous risks--she could have led a very leisurely life or followed a very pedestrian career," says Mahnaz Z. Ispahani, a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and expert in Pakistani affairs. "Instead she chose a very difficult path, in a very difficult time, in a very difficult country."
In some of her first actions as prime minister, Bhutto freed political prisoners, removed constraints on the press and legalized the formation of unions. "You can see the opposition on television--you could never see that there before," Peter Galbraith says of the changes she engineered.
"She has only been in power for six months, after 11 years of military rule," Ispahani says. "There is a period of consolidation that must come before change--she must be given that chance to consolidate herself."
Her government thus far has been a fragile one, with serious opposition from a powerful army, from conservative religious groups who challenge her right as a woman to rule and from opposition political parties, which in recent months have grown in strength.
The furor over Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses-which many say blasphemes the prophet Mohammed and which she eventually banned--has also helped destablized her regime. problem of Afghan refugees and an ensuing drug trade. And Bhutto has said she hopes to depend on U.S. help with these problems.
Observers say her visit to the U.S. this week--after only six months as prime minister--presents an opportunity for the Muslim leader to present a less hostile image of Islam. Many say that with the recent death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the West can look forward to an era of good relations with Muslim leaders like Bhutto.
"Coming after more than a decade of Islamization and military rule, Ms. Bhutto may be Pakistan's last chance for Muslim moderation," Ispahani wrote in an editorial published in The New York Times last week. She says Bhutto's vision is one of an Islamic nation that is "compassionate and tolerant."
And in a speech to Congress yesterday. Bhutto said she anticipates close ties with the U.S. She also stressed her committment to avoiding a nuclear build-up between India and Pakistan, historic rivals.
"The opportunity is there," Peter Galbraith says. "I know that she is very interested in improved relations with India."
"Certainly this trip is very, very significant on a symbolic level--it is a triumph for Pakistani democracy," he adds. "The Democratic government in Pakistan today is not just a government in name, but a government in fact.