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Musharraf: elections will be on schedule
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- President Gen. Pervez Musharraf said Sunday that Pakistan will stick to its January schedule for parliamentary elections but he set no time limit on emergency rule, raising doubts about whether the vote can be free and fair.
Former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, speaking two days after she was briefly put under house arrest, said the schedule for elections was "a first positive step," but with an emergency in place, it would be "difficult" to campaign.
Other opposition parties said Musharraf's sweeping powers, which have already led to thousands of arrests and a ban on rallies, would make a mockery of the democratic process.
The attorney-general also announced Sunday that military courts could now try civilians on charges ranging from treason to inciting public unrest. A leading Pakistani rights activist, currently under house arrest, said it showed the U.S.-backed general had imposed martial law.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice welcomed Musharraf's pledge to hold elections by Jan. 9 but expressed concern that he had not set a time limit for restoring citizens' rights.
"It's not a perfect situation," Rice said.
Musharraf, who took power in a 1999 coup, appeared defiant but bitter at rising criticism of his decision to suspend the constitution a week ago, a step he said was necessary to combat rising Islamic militancy that had sown "turmoil, shock and confusion" in Pakistan.
"It was the most difficult decision I have ever taken in my life," Musharraf said in his first news conference since declaring the emergency Nov. 3.
He voiced anger over the "aspersions" cast on his commitment to fighting Taliban and al-Qaida militants, and his commitment to democracy.
His defense is unlikely to dispel suspicions shared by many in Pakistan that the emergency -- launched ahead of a Supreme Court ruling that could have nixed his plans to serve another five-year term -- was motivated by his own determination to stay in power.
Musharraf justified the dismissal of independent-minded Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry and many of his Supreme Court colleagues -- who have emerged this year as the only real check on his power -- as necessary for the government to function smoothly and fight terrorism.
He also claimed the emergency, under which he has blacked out independent TV networks and suspended many civil rights, was essential for ensuring "absolutely fair and transparent elections."
He declared the current parliament would be dissolved in the coming week, and that Pakistan would invite international observers to scrutinize the vote.