WASHINGTON Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice urged Pakistan's military ruler on Sunday to lift the state of emergency as soon as possible, expressing concern that Gen. Pervez Musharraf has not set a time limit for restoring citizens' rights.
At the same time, Rice said it was a positive sign that Musharraf now has pledged to hold parliamentary elections by mid-January. There had been concerns voting could be delayed by as much as a year in the wake of his declaration last weekend that he was suspending the constitution.
"It's not a perfect situation and nobody would suggest this it is," Rice said. Pakistan has come far, she said, since Musharraf came to power in a coup in 1999 and since 2001, when he pledged his country's help in pursuing terrorists. "The key is to take this in steps."
"We believe that at a time like this, our best role is to counsel and indeed persuade that Pakistan has got to get back on the democratic path that it had established," she said.
"Obviously, we are also encouraging that the state of emergency has got to be lifted, and lifted as soon as possible," she added.
She said the role of the United States should be to persuade Pakistan to return to democracy and civilian rule. Asked about whether it was time for Musharraf to step down, Rice said the focus should be on holding free and fair elections.
"It's very easy to speculate and to make snap judgments in a difficult time like this," Rice said. If Musharraf "carries through on his obligations that he's made to us and that he's made to his own people," the road to democracy "will be re-established."
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democratic presidential candidate, said he is "very skeptical" of Musharraf's announcement because "he still has a crackdown, martial law."
"I am extremely concerned that we are associating ourselves with a dictatorship that is basically just revamping the entire constitutional system to keep its purposes of being in power," said Richardson, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in the Clinton administration.
"You can't have democracy halfway," he said.
A GOP White House hopeful, Arizona Sen. John McCain, said that as president, "I would be doing intensive behind-the-scenes negotiations, and I would do my best to convince Musharraf that the best thing for him, as well as the future of Pakistan, is to go ahead and schedule these elections."
McCain said he would not threaten to cut off all U.S. aid to Pakistan because "if you play that last card and it doesn't work, then obviously you have no leverage whatsoever."
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.
At a news conference Sunday in Islamabad, Musharraf defended the emergency measures and said it was "the most difficult decision I have ever taken in my life."
Musharraf has said he would give up his army post, as the U.S. has urged, but only once his Oct. 6 presidential election victory had been endorsed. That is regarded by many observers as a formality now that he has remade the Supreme Court and ousted popular judges.
He contended the emergency would "ensure absolute, fair and transparent elections," and said that Pakistan would invite international observers to scrutinize the vote.
Rice spoke on "This Week" on ABC. Richardson and McCain were on "Fox News Sunday."