Rawalpindi, Pakistan President Gen. Pervez Musharraf said for the first time Wednesday that he expects to quit as chief of Pakistan's army by the end of November, heralding a return to civilian rule.
But in an interview with The Associated Press, he also rejected U.S. pressure to quickly end a state of emergency and a demand from opposition leader Benazir Bhutto that he leave the political stage altogether.
Musharraf, wearing a dark business suit rather than his military uniform, said rising Islamic militancy required him to stay in control of the troubled nation but he left the door open for future cooperation with Bhutto if she wins January parliamentary elections.
He said his government "would prefer to engage with all the foreign concerns and tell them our difficulties so that they understand."
"But basically my concern is Pakistan," Musharraf said. "I take decisions in Pakistan's interest and I don't take ultimatums from anyone."
The general, who seized power in a 1999 coup and sided with the United States after the Sept. 11 attacks, has appeared increasingly isolated since he declared an emergency and suspended the constitution Nov. 3.
Authorities have rounded up thousands of opposition and human rights activists, purged the courts and blacked out independent TV news channels - giving ammunition for his opponents to brand him a dictator.
The U.S. and other Western allies have been pushing for Musharraf to take off his uniform and end the emergency, warning it could seriously undermine the legitimacy of the elections that are meant to end eight years of direct military rule.
Washington wants Musharraf to share power with other moderate forces to try to rein in extremists allied with the Taliban and al-Qaida, who have seized control of swaths of territory near the Afghan border.
"We don't see how it is possible to have free and fair elections under emergency rule. We want to have emergency rule lifted, so that people could protest peacefully, or that they can campaign, and so that a free media can cover the election as we do here," White House press secretary Dana Perino said Wednesday, after Musharraf's comments to the AP.
Musharraf should return to democracy "as soon as possible - we think as soon as possible is now," Perino said. "We'd like to see it done immediately."
The Commonwealth, the 53-member grouping that includes Britain and former British colonies, has threatened to suspend Pakistan unless the emergency is lifted by Nov. 22.
However, President Bush continues to describe Musharraf as a trusted ally and U.S. officials have indicated they won't cut generous aid to Pakistan's military. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte is due in Islamabad on Friday.
"All those who are blunt enough to tell me to my face what the reality is, all of them think, yes, it will lead the country to chaos if I do not handle the political environment now with me remaining as the president," Musharraf said Wednesday.