The United States said on Wednesday Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak must take concrete steps toward democratic elections at once but stopped short of calling on him to step down immediately.
The White House repeated President Barack Obama's call for an orderly transition of power to begin "now" and raised the possibility the government might have instigated violence in Cairo that intensified on Wednesday when pro-Mubarak forces entered the fray.
"Obviously, if any of the violence is instigated by the government, it should stop immediately," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said at a news briefing.
The Obama administration reached out to Egypt's top military officer, stressing the need for calm to be restored to the streets of Cairo and offering praise for the army, which could play a central role in resolving the crisis.
While it did not call for Mubarak's immediate departure -- the demand of thousands of protesters in nine days of unrest across Egypt -- Gibbs said a transition must start right away.
"Now means now," Gibbs told a briefing.
Asked if the White House could accept Mubarak staying until September, when a presidential election is due, Gibbs said he would not discuss details of Obama's talks with Mubarak.
The spokesman was also vague about exactly what the United States wanted Mubarak to do, saying, "There are reforms that need to be undertaken. ... There are opposition entities that have to be included in the conversations as we move toward free and fair elections that we've advocated for quite some time."
Senator John McCain, who met with Obama at the White House, said it was time for Mubarak to go.
"The rapidly deteriorating situation in Egypt leads me to the conclusion that President Mubarak needs to step down and relinquish power," McCain, the senior Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a statement.
"All Americans should be appreciative of President Mubarak's long record of cooperation with our government, which has helped to fight terrorism and promote peace and security in the Middle East and North Africa," said McCain, who lost to Obama in the 2008 election.
"But Egypt must have a democratic future. It is the will of the Egyptian people."
A US official and Middle East analysts cited several steps the United States probably wanted to see, including:
-- repealing Egypt's emergency law, which rights groups say gives the government the ability to detain people indefinitely without charge and bar or disperse election-related rallies;
-- reforming laws that give the current ruling party an effective veto over who can run for president.
"At a minimum, remove the emergency law," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
"Frankly, the longer this drags on, the more prescriptive we're going to have to be just because the public pressure will be irresistible."
Mubarak said on Tuesday he would not run for re-election, a major concession for a man who has ruled Egypt for 30 years and has been a cornerstone of US strategy in the Middle East. But that did not mollify demonstrators who want him out now.
A senior US official said Washington believed Mubarak's aides were pondering whether he needed to do more to satisfy protesters and suggested Wednesday's clashes might convince the military it needed to pressure him to go further.
"We think there are debates going on within President Mubarak's inner circle on that question -- or on that reality -- that they have moved but they haven't moved far enough or fast enough," said the senior Obama administration official.
Obama said on Tuesday night he had told Mubarak he believed that "an orderly transition must be meaningful, it must be peaceful, and it must begin now."
But one sign of Mubarak's determination to stay on, analysts said, was an Egyptian foreign ministry statement saying foreign calls for a democratic transition to begin at once were "rejected and aimed to incite the internal situation in Egypt."
That seemed a rebuff to Obama, as did the appearance on Wednesday of Mubarak supporters, some on horses and camels, fighting protesters in the streets of the Egyptian capital.
US secretary of state Hillary Clinton telephoned Egypt's newly named vice president, intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, and urged Egypt to investigate who was behind Wednesday's violence and to hold them accountable.
US defense secretary Roberts Gates also spoke by phone with the Egyptian defense minister in their third conversation since last weekend, Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said.
Former US smbassador to Egypt Frank Wisner, who went to Cairo and met Mubarak and Suleiman, was on his way back and would brief Obama and Clinton, the State Department said.