Islamabad, Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf promised Thursday to lift his emergency decree by Dec. 16, but opponents expressed skepticism that he would fully roll back the repressive measures he imposed nearly a month ago.
The pledge came hours into Musharraf's tenure as a solely civilian leader, which he touted as proof of his commitment to democracy. Taking the oath of office for a new five-year presidential term Thursday morning, the former general defended his decision to declare emergency rule and chided the West for "unrealistic" expectations about the nature of democracy in Pakistan.
Until now, Musharraf, considered a close U.S. ally, had resisted demands by the Bush administration and other Western governments to set a date for ending the state of emergency, which is akin to martial law.
Following the Nov. 3 declaration, Musharraf used his new powers to crack down hard on political opponents. Thousands of opposition party workers, lawyers and human-rights activists were arrested, senior judges were fired and media restrictions were imposed.
Some of those measures have been eased, but Musharraf's critics say that unless the constitution is restored and fired judges given their jobs back, lifting the state of emergency will be a meaningless gesture.
"No one believes he will do these things," said Hajira Sattar, a political activist who was jailed for a week in the wake of the emergency declaration. "And if he does not, then we are still under the thumb of a leader who now pretends to be a democrat."
The country's two principal opposition leaders, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, have demanded the reinstatement of fired Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, who is under house arrest. Musharraf has ruled out such a step.
Chaudhry's replacement, Musharraf loyalist Abdul Hameed Dogar, administered the oath of office Thursday. Speaking to assembled dignitaries, Musharraf declared the occasion "a milestone in the transition of Pakistan to the complete essence of democracy."
Later, in a televised address to the nation, the Pakistani leader promised that the emergency rule would end more than three weeks before parliamentary elections, set for Jan. 8.
Bhutto and Sharif, together with other opposition figures, have said it would be impossible to campaign while the emergency decree was in effect.
"I am fully determined that the emergency will be lifted on Dec. 16," said Musharraf, speaking evenly and looking straight into the camera. "God willing, the election will be held ... in a free and transparent fashion."
Bhutto and Sharif have said they would refuse to serve in government while Musharraf is head of state. Earlier this month, he twice placed Bhutto under house arrest, and he deported Sharif in September on the former prime minister's first attempt to return after eight years in exile.
The two opposition leaders have said they are considering a boycott of the January vote, but most analysts believe neither would sit out the election for fear of giving the other an edge.
As he had for his inauguration, Musharraf wore a formal black tunic for his televised speech. Up until Wednesday, when he stepped down as military chief, he often delivered such addresses in uniform.
Musharraf handed over army command to a handpicked replacement, Gen. Ashfaq Kiani, whom he praised repeatedly in his speeches Thursday. Kiani inherits a full-blown Islamic insurgency in the tribal lands bordering Afghanistan and in the Swat Valley in northwestern Pakistan.
More violence flared Thursday near the Afghan frontier, where a roadside bomb killed five soldiers. In the Swat Valley, military officials said 11 civilians were killed late Wednesday when a shell aimed at militants hit a family compound.