The unexpected release of Asif Ali Zardari, the husband of former Pakistan premier Benazir Bhutto, has led to growing speculation that the move could be part of a behind-the-scenes deal, struck between Bhutto and President Pervez Musharraf. The release of Zardari has come as General Musharraf faces mounting pressure from opposition parties over his failure to keep his promise to quit as army chief. Zardari was released this week on bail after being detained since 1996 on corruption charges. Bhutto has been living in exile in Britain and the United Arab Emirates. Islamic opposition parties are planning to start a nationwide campaign of protests in the next few days. 'The move [Zardari's release] is aimed at diluting the controversy over the uniform issue and frustrate the opposition's plans for agitation,' said Talat Masood, a retired general and analyst. It also seems to be aimed at alienating the religious parties, which have been striving hard to get support from their secular counterparts to widen the protests against the president. The Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), a conglomerate of six major Islamic parties, is set to launch its anti-government campaign with a protest rally in Karachi on Sunday. This may well be followed by similar rallies in other cities and towns and a possible march to Islamabad unless, according to the MMA, General Musharraf steps down and announces elections. Seen from this perspective, rapprochement with the mainstream political rivals appears to be the only viable option available to the Pakistani president. Political pundits see a growing realisation in the government that it needs to reach out to the secular opposition, which may result in more surprises in the days ahead. 'The release of other high-profile political prisoners and even a possible return of Benazir Bhutto cannot be ruled out,' Mr Masood said. General Musharraf's supporters claim the move will create a better atmosphere and defuse political tension. It is also expected to help secure crucial political acceptance of some of the president's key policy objectives, including the recent peace overtures to India over the issue of Kashmir. It is yet to be seen whether General Musharraf's latest tactical shift is motivated by a genuine desire for reconciliation or to confuse his opponents.