Musharraf wants Pakistan election on Jan. 8

( Reuters ) - President Pervez Musharraf said he wants a national election to be held in Pakistan on January 8, but despite pressure from the United States over the weekend he did not say whether emergency rule would be revoked beforehand.

"Inshallah (God willing), the general elections in the country would be held on January 8," the official Associated Press of Pakistan news agency quoted Musharraf as saying late on Sunday. The report said he had recommended the date to the Election Commission.

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte warned Musharraf on Saturday that the election's credibility would suffer unless the state of emergency announced on November 3 was rolled back.

Negroponte, who left Pakistan on Sunday, was careful not to undermine General Musharraf, a crucial ally in the fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban, while sticking to Washington's stated position that thousands of people detained in the last two weeks should be released and curbs on the media should be lifted.

"Emergency rule is not compatible with free, fair and credible elections," the United States' No. 2 diplomat told a news conference on Sunday at the end of his three-day visit to Pakistan.

"If these steps aren't taken, it will certainly undermine the government's ability to conduct satisfactory elections."

Pakistani newspapers were disparaging of Negroponte's failure to back up words with some kind of threat unless Musharraf complied.

"To see the U.S. stick it out on the wrong side of the fence will not win the latter any approval with the people of Pakistan," Dawn said in an editorial on Monday.

Negroponte said reconciliation was "very desirable" between moderate political forces -- apparently referring to the breakdown of a understanding between Musharraf and opposition leader Benazir Bhutto for possible post-election power sharing.

U.S. Ambassador Anne W. Patterson was in Karachi on Monday to meet Bhutto, who spoke to Negroponte by telephone during his visit to Islamabad.

Musharraf's main objective in assuming emergency powers was to purge the Supreme Court of judges he feared were about to annul his own October 6 re-election.

A new bench of the Supreme Court began hearing on Monday rivals' challenges to Musharraf's right to have contested while still army chief.

Once the challenges are struck down, Musharraf has promised to quit the army and be sworn in as a civilian president.

But he has said emergency rule would remain in place for longer to reinforce the fight against Islamist militants threatening Pakistan's stability and help ensure security for the elections.

However, former prime minister Bhutto has said she might boycott the poll.

An opposition alliance led by another former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, ousted and sent into exile by Musharraf, is also due to meet in Islamabad on Monday to discuss whether to take part in the elections.

Meantime, the Pakistan army was expected to launch a major operation to crush a militant movement in Swat, a valley in North West Frontier Province (NWFP) where hundreds of people have been killed in clashes with security forces in the past few weeks.

Around 80 people were killed in an outbreak of sectarian violence over the weekend in Parachinar, the main town in the Kurram tribal agency bordering Afghanistan, as the security situation in the frontier region continued to deteriorate.

Parachinar has a history of clashes between Sunni Muslim tribesmen sympathetic with al Qaeda and Shi'ite Muslim tribesmen, less friendly to the presence of Osama bin Laden's followers in their lands.

The army was taking control in Parachinar on Monday, while in Swat there was no sign of the operation, according reporters in both areas.

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