( AP ) - 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 on 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 of Britain and its former colonies have 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.
Musharraf was in an affable mood during the 50-minute interview at his army office south of the capital, the latest in a series of meetings with foreign media designed to blunt criticism.
He began by making light of unfounded rumors last week that his fellow generals had arrested him, and apologized for an involved defense to AP of his removal of Pakistan's chief justice.
Musharraf had originally planned to quit as army chief by Thursday, when his presidential mandate and the term of the current Parliament expire.
But he said he was forced to delay until a court ruling on his recent re-election. He said the exact timing would depend on the reconstituted Supreme Court but expected it to happen this month.
Musharraf lashed out at Bhutto - a political rival, but one who shares his pro-Western outlook - for stirring up tensions since her return to Pakistan from exile was met with a suicide bombing that killed 145 people. He said there was now an "acute trust deficit" between them.
He said Bhutto was overplaying her popularity in Pakistan and thought it unlikely she could become prime minister for a third time by winning the elections, but left open the possibility of working with her if she did.
"We will see. I do function with everyone. I'm quite good at functioning with people. It depends on her if she wants to be on a confrontational course or a conciliatory one," he said.
On Tuesday, Bhutto was put under house arrest for the second time in a week to prevent her from leading a protest procession. She responded by calling on Musharraf to resign and said that despite earlier negotiations, it would be impossible for her to work under him as president.
She has been involved in a vicious war of words with conservatives in Musharraf's coalition, even accusing them of trying to kill her on her return.
She said it was likely that her party would boycott the elections - a threat already made by other opposition parties, including that of Nawaz Sharif, whose elected government was ousted in Musharraf's 1999 coup. Together Bhutto and Sharif could form a powerful opposition bloc against the general.
Musharraf acknowledged he was concerned about the threat of a boycott, but said he thought it unlikely and urged opposition parties against it.
"They must not boycott and I don't think they're going to boycott," he said.
Under the emergency, Musharraf removed the chief justice of the Supreme Court and other judges who were poised to rule on whether he was eligible for a new five-year term.
Western government and opposition parties alike have serious doubts about whether elections can be free and fair under such conditions - concerns Musharraf gave short shrift.
"Emergency is not meant to rig elections. Emergency is in fact meant to make sure that elections are held in a peaceful manner," he said.
He accused the opposition of wanting "agitation."
"They want to disturb law and order and they want to undermine governance," he said.
Former Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry's "interference" - the judge had hauled in top officials to order them to free terror suspects held, sometimes for years, without charge - had paralyzed the government, Musharraf said. "I acted in the national interest, beyond personal interest."
Analysts say that lacking broad political support, Musharraf must retain the support of his Western allies and the army if he is to weather the most serious crisis of his rule.
"The emergency proclamation strengthens Musharraf's critics within the ( U.S.) administration," said Craig Cohen of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
"But enough still see him right now as having value in delivering on the war on terror, and would prefer to keep him as part of the equation" rather than turning to civilian leaders sullied by past corruption allegations or untested generals, Cohen said. Musharraf said he had cleared up some of Washington's concerns and said the army would never turn against him.
"People don't know our army ... They followed me not because of the rank but because of the respect they hold for me. I have no doubt on the loyalty of this army. Never will this happen against me," he said.
He said unity in the military would prevent nuclear-armed Pakistan from ever becoming a failed state.
"The military is very strong and extremely disciplined. As long as the armed forces of Pakistan remain united, which they will and are, no harm can come to Pakistan. The harm can come from the political dilemma. We have to resolve the political dilemma," Musharraf said.
The president said the military was gearing up for an assault on militants who recently seized the Swat valley, a former tourist destination just 100 miles northwest of Islamabad.
At least 33 fighters loyal to a pro-Taliban rebel cleric were killed Wednesday in a series of attacks in Swat, army spokesman Maj. Gen. Waheed Arshad said Thursday.
Musharraf said Pakistan faced a "vicious enemy" including Uzbek and Arab fighters, aided by Taliban sympathizers, but was confident the army could regain the initiative soon.
He said it was possible that Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida No. 2 Ayman al-Zawahri could be hiding in the Pakistani border region of Bajur or in neighboring Kunar province of Afghanistan because of the remoteness and ruggedness of terrain and lack of troops there. He said that neither Pakistan nor the U.S. had evidence of their whereabouts.
"We have no contacts and our intelligence is as good as or as bad as the American intelligence. We are totally coordinated. We don't know where they are," he said.
He cast doubt on U.S. fears that the terror network had regrouped to the extent it could be planning Sept. 11-scale attacks from Pakistani territory.
"I think there are loose groups, maybe getting financial assistance from some linkages with abroad. But if we think there's a command structure of al-Qaida flowing from the top downwards, with logistics, financial support coming through an organized methodology, I don't think that is correct," Musharraf said.