(ANJUM NAVEED ~ Associated Press)
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- Pakistan eased its crackdown on opponents Saturday, releasing opposition leader Benazir Bhutto from house arrest and saying it will lift a state of emergency within a month. But the government blocked a meeting between the deposed Supreme Court justice and Bhutto, who pledged to lead a 185-mile protest march.
President Bush called President Gen. Pervez Musharraf's promises "positive steps," throwing U.S. support firmly behind the Pakistani leader in the fight against Islamic militants.
Bhutto, apparently unbowed by her brief detention, said she would defy Musharraf's ban on public gatherings and lead supporters on a march from the eastern city of Lahore to Islamabad on Tuesday.
"When the masses combine, the sound of their steps will suppress the sound of military boots," Bhutto, a former prime minister, told around 100 journalists protesting a new media clampdown.
Musharraf insists he called the week-old emergency to help fight Islamic extremists who control swathes of territory near the Afghan border. But the main targets of his subsequent crackdown in this nation of 160 million people have been his most outspoken critics, including the increasingly independent courts and media.
Thousands of people have been arrested, TV news stations were taken off air and judges removed. On Saturday, three reporters from Britain's Daily Telegraph newspaper were ordered to leave Pakistan for an editorial in the paper that used an expletive in an allusion to Musharraf, said Deputy Information Minister Tariq Azim.
A heavy security cordon around Bhutto's Islamabad villa kept her under house arrest for 24 hours, but she was allowed to leave Saturday morning, meeting first with party colleagues and then addressing the journalists' protest.
But dozens of helmeted police blocked her white, bulletproof Land Cruiser when she tried to visit Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, the independent-minded chief justice who was removed from his post following Musharraf's state of emergency.
The moves have prompted sharp criticism from the United States, Musharraf's chief international backer, and last week he said that parliamentary elections initially slated for January would be held no more than a month later, dispelling speculation the vote could be delayed by as long as year.
Attorney General Malik Mohammed Qayyum said on Saturday that the state of emergency would "end within one month." He provided no further details and would not say when a formal announcement might come.
Addressing supporters through a loudspeaker on Saturday, Bhutto said Taliban and al-Qaida-linked militants were gaining ground in the country's turbulent northwest, near the Afghan border. She also said Musharraf's military-led government was about to crumble.
"This government is standing on its last foot," she said, as dozens of supporters scuffled briefly with police. "This government is going to go."
Last month, Bhutto's jubilant homecoming procession in the southern city of Karachi after eight years of exile was marred by twin suicide bombings. She escaped unharmed, but more than 145 people died in the attack, blamed on Islamic militants.
"You have allowed [firebrand Islamic cleric] Maulana Fazlullah to snatch Swat," -- a former tourist destination where fighting has raged for months, "but you are beating unarmed people," Bhutto said outside the chief justice's house, drawing chants of "Long live Bhutto!" from her supporters.
Suspected militants have abducted scores of soldiers in the region in recent weeks, including eight on Saturday, who were stopped at a makeshift roadblock and overpowered, government and military officials said on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press.
Some U.S. officials have expressed concern that Pakistan's political crisis would actually distract its efforts against a growing militant threat in the Afghan border region. NATO said Saturday insurgents had killed six American troops in eastern Afghanistan.
Bush sidestepped a question on that issue, saying he has confidence in the commitment of Pakistan's leadership to stick with the U.S. in the fight against global terrorism. He added that the U.S. needed partners in the fight against al-Qaida.
"One country we need cooperation from is Pakistan," he said.
The Bush administration has continued to describe Musharraf as an "indispensable" ally against extremists, suggesting it is unlikely to yield to calls from some lawmakers in Washington for cuts in its generous aid to Pakistan, much of it to the powerful military.
Just a few weeks ago, Bhutto and Musharraf were discussing the possibility of forming a pro-West alliance against militants, and her return last month following eight years in exile came after he agreed to drop corruption charges against her.
Bhutto has left open the possibility of re-entering talks with the army chief, including on her wish to serve a third term as prime minister, but such prospects have been dimmed by recent restrictions on her movement and her increasingly tough talk.
Many critics say the main goal of Musharraf's emergency was to pre-empt a Supreme Court ruling on the legality of his victory in a presidential election last month. Under the constitution, public servants cannot run for office.
Qayyum, the attorney general, said the court -- now purged of its more independent justices -- would swear in more judges in the next two or three days, bringing it up to the strength required to restart hearings in the case.
Musharraf says he will quit his post as army chief and rule as a civilian once the court has confirmed his re-election, but set no date for that step.