ISLAMABAD, Pakistan Pakistan's military ruler said Sunday elections would be held by January but refused to set a time limit on emergency rule that has suspended citizens' rights, claiming it was essential for fighting terrorism and ensuring a free and fair vote.
Opposition leader Benazir Bhutto called the announcement a "first positive step," but said it would be difficult to hold elections under emergency rule. Other opposition politicians said President Gen. Pervez Musharraf's sweeping powers, which have led to thousands of arrests, would make a mockery of the democratic process.
In his first major news conference since suspending the constitution a week ago, Musharraf bristled at criticism of his commitment to restoring democracy and was unapologetic about his decision to purge the top ranks of the judiciary, which had challenged his dominance.
Though Musharraf has been under intense pressure from the United States and other international backers to end the state of emergency, he said did not expect any foreign sanctions for resorting to authoritarian measures.
"They do understand our ground realities, mainly the issue of terrorism and how we have to combat it," he said. "If we are on the path to democracy I'm sure they will understand and no such problem will occur."
He declared the current parliament would be dissolved in the coming week, paving the way for elections to be held on schedule despite comments from other government officials that they could be delayed by up to a year.
"We should have elections before the 9th of January," Musharraf told reporters at his presidential residence in Islamabad.
The army chief imposed the state of emergency on Nov. 3, citing the growing threat posed by Taliban and al-Qaida-linked militants. Critics say the move was aimed at extending his grip on power, noting that the main targets of his crackdown so far have been human rights workers, political activists and lawyers.
Sounding indignant and sometimes angry, Musharraf said the declaration of the emergency was in the interests of Pakistan, not to keep power.
"It was the most difficult decision I have ever taken in my life," he said, wearing a dark blue suit rather than his army fatigues.
"I could have preserved myself, but then it would have damaged the nation. I found myself between a rock and a hard surface. I have no personal ego and ambitions to guard. I have the national interest foremost," he said, speaking in English. "Whatever the cost, I bear responsibility, and I stand by it."
In Washington, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said it was a positive sign that Musharraf had set the stage for elections, but urged him to lift the state of emergency as soon as possible.
She said the role of the United States should be to persuade Pakistan that "it has to get back on the democratic road."
Musharraf claimed the emergency would "ensure absolute, fair and transparent elections," and said that Pakistan would invite international observers to scrutinize the vote.
Bhutto, who before the emergency had been in talks with Musharraf on a postelection alliance, said the president was sending conflicting signals and that "in the presence of ... the emergency, the holding of fair elections seems to be difficult"
But she added that she had "not shut the door for talks" with Musharraf.
Criticism from other opposition politicians was more pointed.
"How can the elections be held in a free and fair manner when the emergency is in place?" asked Zafar Ali Shah, a senior leader of the opposition Pakistan Muslim League-N party, noting that at present public gatherings are illegal.
Others expressed concerns about intimidation and threats of further arrests.
Musharraf said opposition supporters who had been rounded up since the emergency would be released to take part in the polls, but warned they could be detained again.
Anyone who "disturbs law and order and wants to create anarchy in the name of elections and democracy, we will not allow that," he said.
His comments followed his decision to amend a law to give army courts sweeping powers to try civilians on charges ranging from treason to inciting public unrest.
That, in theory, could include Bhutto, a former prime minister who has vowed to lead thousands of supporters on a 185-mile protest march on Tuesday.
Musharraf said he had to take the dramatic step of imposing emergency rule to address the "turmoil, shock and confusion" in Pakistan and to better fight Islamic militants in the interior of the troubled northwest.
That battle, he said, would continue until the extremists were defeated. It could also prolong the emergency.
"The emergency contributes towards better law and order and a better fight against terrorism, and, therefore, all I can say is I do understand the emergency has to be lifted, but I cannot give a date for it," Musharraf said.
Musharraf also declared he would give up his army uniform, but only once his Oct. 6 presidential election victory had been endorsed regarded by many observers as a formality now that he has remade the Supreme Court and ousted popular judges.
His opponents argue he should have been disqualified because he contested the vote as army chief.
"The moment they give a decision ... I should take an oath of office as civilian president of Pakistan. I hope that happens as soon as possible."
He dismissed speculation that he could struggle to maintain the loyalty of the powerful army once he ruled as a civilian.
"Even if I'm not in uniform, this army will be with me," Musharraf said.
President Bush earlier described promises to restore civilian rule as "positive," throwing Washington's support firmly behind the Pakistani leader, who is considered to be a close ally in the so-called war on terror.
Even as Musharraf spoke, small but angry protests against his rule continued."If he doesn't go, Pakistan will not survive," said Roadad Kahn, an 85-year-old retired civil servant who joined around 100 demonstrators outside the offices of independent Geo TV, one of dozens to have been taken off the air.
Associated Press writer Munir Ahmad contributed to this report.