ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN — A senior U.S. envoy pressed President Pervez Musharraf on Saturday to lift a harsh emergency decree and move the country toward civilian rule, but the Pakistani leader balked at setting any firm timetables despite the high-level demand from his government's main patron.
Deputy Secretary of State John D. Negroponte reported no breakthroughs in the two-hour meeting, during which he also urged Musharraf to reconcile with opposition leader Benazir Bhutto.
"There remain serious issues we urge President Musharraf and his government to consider as rapidly as possible," Negroponte told journalists early today.
In the talks, the Pakistani leader reiterated his pledge to hold parliamentary elections in January and step down soon as military chief, Negroponte said. But no date was set for ending the emergency decree, lifting media restrictions or freeing thousands of political prisoners arrested since the emergency rule was imposed two weeks ago.
Negroponte's meeting with Musharraf represented the most urgent U.S. appeal to date for the Pakistani leader to end the state of emergency, considered by most observers to be de facto martial law. Opposition leaders have said a free and fair vote is impossible while the decree remains in place.
The general, however, defended his actions, saying he had acted in the interests of democracy. Musharraf told Negroponte that amid an intensifying Islamic insurgency, emergency measures were needed to ensure that January parliamentary elections could be held safely, said a senior Pakistani official.
U.S. officials in Washington, speaking on condition of anonymity out of deference to Negroponte's diplomatic efforts, said that although Musharraf didn't make any commitments Saturday, they believed he might in time yield.
The United States is in a delicate position, on the one hand wanting to encourage democratic rule but on the other remaining wary of any action that could destabilize Pakistan. The nuclear-armed nation has been considered a crucial U.S. ally against militants linked to the Taliban and Al Qaeda.
Musharraf imposed emergency rule despite a direct appeal from the United States to refrain from doing so. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had talked him out of such a step in August. But this time, Musharraf, apparently worried that the Supreme Court would declare his reelection as president last month invalid because he was still military chief, was undeterred even by the evident displeasure of his chief backer.
Under the emergency decree, the Pakistani Constitution has been suspended and basic civil liberties curtailed. The chief justice and scores of senior judges have been removed from their posts, independent news broadcasts curbed and thousands of opposition leaders, lawyers and other activists arrested.
Negroponte also met with the vice chief of the military, Gen. Ashfaq Kiani, who is expected to take over leadership of the army when Musharraf quits that post, as he has vowed to do by month's end. Negroponte also spoke with Lt. Gen. Nadeem Taj, director-general of the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence, Pakistan's spy agency.
Both the army vice chief and the head of intelligence routinely meet with visiting senior diplomats. However, U.S. officials had hinted before Saturday's talks that if Musharraf remained intransigent, the Bush administration might seek to strengthen its ties with other senior military figures.
Top generals are believed to be loyal to the Pakistani leader now, but analysts have suggested that they might grow restive if they fear that billions of dollars in military aid could be jeopardized if Musharraf remains in power.
Negroponte did not meet face-to-face with former Prime Minister Bhutto, perhaps wanting to avoid the appearance of meddling in domestic politics. But he telephoned Bhutto after landing Friday evening, telling her that the United States hoped she and other political leaders would be able to participate freely in a peaceful vote.
Before the emergency decree and even for some days after it, the Bush administration had hoped that Bhutto would work out a power-sharing accord with Musharraf, all but ensuring rule by two Western-friendly moderates. But after being placed twice under house arrest and seeing hundreds, if not thousands, of her party members rounded up, Bhutto declared that she could not work with Musharraf and demanded that he step down not only as army chief but as president.
Negroponte urged the two to mend fences. "I encouraged reconciliation between political moderates as the most constructive way forward," he said.
After the visit, it was not immediately clear whether Bhutto might shift her stance and resume contact with Musharraf. Speaking to journalists Saturday before flying from the eastern city of Lahore to her hometown, Karachi, she said Musharraf should quit as head of the military but did not repeat her call for him to relinquish power altogether.