The United States has again asked Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf to end emergency rule and take off his army uniform even as Washington's defiant key ally publicly rejected its demand.
A top US diplomat visiting Islamabad was expected to reiterate demands for a return to constitutional rule, a state department official said on Wednesday, though he still could not say for sure whether Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte will see Musharraf in person.
But spokesman Sean McCormack would not agree if this implied that Musharraf doesn't want to meet the US envoy. "I'm just anticipating that President Musharraf would meet with him, but I'm not going to be so rude as to announce any meetings on behalf of President Musharraf."
Nor did he know if Negroponte, a former US intelligence chief, will meet former premier Benazir Bhutto, who has taken an increasingly strident stand against Musharraf signalling the end of an uneasy deal brokered by Washington between the two.
Asked if US would ever sign off on elections even if Musharraf kept emergency rule, McCormack said: "It's not for us necessarily to sign off on elections. First and foremost, they have to reflect the will of the Pakistani people."
"I know President Musharraf has talked about the fact that he thought it was important to have the state of emergency in order to have free and fair elections. Our view is different," he said.
"More than that, we think given the current circumstances (it is) hard to imagine having a free and fair election where you have the ability to access media, the ability to fully participate in the political debate in the run-up to election day," McCormack said.
However McCormack conceded: "He's not answering to the United States. We're a friend. We're counselling him. We're counselling him with the advice that we think will most benefit the Pakistani people and Pakistan in the future. He is ultimately accountable to the Pakistani people and acting in their best interest."
White House spokesperson Dana Perino too reiterated the US demand for an end to emergency rule, saying: "We believe the best way for Pakistan to have a stable and prosperous future is to fully establish democracy."
"We want Pakistan and President Musharraf to return (to the democratic path) immediately, as soon as possible," she said. "We think as soon as possible -- that 'possible' is now, and we'd like to see it done immediately."
"Obviously the situation is evolving, and we continue to be in close contact with his government," Perino said, adding Washington was also in contact with Bhutto and other opposition party leaders.
Asked how the standoff with Musharraf had damaged his relationship with President George W. Bush, Perino said: "The president doesn't take this personally. The president believes that it's incumbent upon him as the commander-in-chief of the United States to work with a fellow leader in order to help them along the path to democracy."
"He feels an obligation to work with them and not to just try to throw up our hands and to walk away," she said, adding: "I think the President is focussed at the task at hand, which is helping them get back on the road to democracy, not on his personal feelings about it."
Meanwhile, Musharraf and Bhutto, the two leaders Washington is banking on to take Pakistan on a path of moderation, continued to spar with each other through the American media.
In an interview with influential New York Times, Musharraf not only rejected an appeal by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to lift his state of emergency, he also refused to say when he would step down as army leader and become a civilian president as demanded by Bush. "It will happen soon," the daily quoted him as saying.
As for Bhutto, he said, "she has no right" to ask him to resign. "You come here on supposedly a reconciliatory mode, and right before you land, you're on a confrontationist mode."
Reacting to Bhutto's claim that her party would most likely sweep parliamentary elections, the general said: "Let's start the elections, and let's see whether she wins."
"Constitutionally today she has been prime minister twice," he told the Times. "What about the third time? She is not legally allowed; she is not constitutionally allowed. Why are we taking things for granted?"
On her part, Bhutto in an article in the Washington Post dubbed the general' s plans to hold elections under emergency rule as "Musharraf's Electoral Farce".
"Musharraf knows how to crack down against pro-democracy forces. He is, however, unwilling or unable to track down and arrest Osama bin Laden or contain the extremists. This is the reality of Pakistan in November 2007," she said.
"The only terror that Musharraf's regime seems able to confront is the terror of his own," Bhutto said, asking him to "resign as president and chief of army staff, and to pave the way for the composition of an interim government of national consensus that will oversee the transfer of power to duly elected representatives of the people".