ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - President Pervez Musharraf lifted a six-week-old state of emergency yesterday as promised, but he also made clear he would keep a tight lid on dissent.
Musharraf took legal steps last week to entrench the limits he imposed under the emergency, including strict curbs on press freedom and the replacement of independent-minded judges with jurists friendlier to the US-backed leader.
Opponents have said the changes set the stage for national elections next month to be rigged, and have threatened to hold mass demonstrations.
In a nationally televised speech, Musharraf told a skeptical nation yesterday that the crackdown was to save Pakistan from a conspiracy rather than ensure his own political survival.
Musharraf said the emergency helped slow the spread of Islamic militancy but the country still faces a "grave situation" with the approach of Jan. 8 parliamentary elections that will determine who will form the next government.
He said unnamed conspirators had hatched a plot with members of the judiciary to derail the country's transition to democracy, and he warned political parties to avoid stirring up trouble.
"Against my will, as a last resort, I had to impose the emergency in order to save Pakistan," Musharraf said. "I cannot tell how much pain the nation and I suffered due to this conspiracy."
The response was muted from the White House, which has walked a fine line between criticizing the democratic backsliding by Musharraf and supporting a key ally against Islamic militancy.
"It's a good step for the Pakistani people," said Jeanie Mamo, a spokeswoman for President Bush.
Musharraf has previously said he imposed the state of emergency to halt a conspiracy by top judges to end his eight-year rule, and to ward off political chaos that would hobble Pakistan's efforts against Islamic extremism. He also has insisted that the Supreme Court, which had been poised to rule on the legality of his October reelection, was acting beyond the constitution.
He said yesterday that the state of emergency had been crucial to maintaining stability.
"There was no other personal objective," he said. "Thanks be to God, we have defeated that conspiracy. It is my commitment to the entire nation of Pakistan and to its people and to the world that the elections on Jan. 8 will be held on time and will be absolutely fair and transparent."
Musharraf's leading opponents, former prime ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, warned of mass protests if they think the vote has been rigged in favor of Musharraf supporters.
"The electioneering has not started yet, but some parties are talking of rigging," Musharraf said. "They should refrain from such accusations. People should take part in the electioneering, cast their vote but should not indulge in any negative activity."
He said foreign election monitors were welcome to monitor the process.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown of Britain said he spoke with Musharraf by phone yesterday.
"Concrete measures should include increased transparency of the electoral process, prevention of local government abuse, a nonpartisan election commission, release of remaining political detainees and the lifting of all restrictions on the media," he said.
Liaquat Baloch, a senior leader of Jamaat-e-Islami, Pakistan's largest Islamic party, which is boycotting the election, - called Musharraf's move a "fraud."
"Musharraf had two targets: getting through the illegal process of his election and purging the judiciary of independent-minded judges, and he achieved both targets," Baloch said.
The president on Friday removed a condition from the constitution stating that civil servants - including army officers - had to wait two years after their retirement before running for elected office, Attorney General Malik Mohammed Qayyum said.
Musharraf stepped down as army chief only last month. Removing the provision in question eliminated one of the grounds on which his October reelection had been challenged.
Qayyum said other changes sealed the retirement of purged Supreme Court judges. Their replacements swiftly approved Musharraf's reelection by a Parliament stacked with his supporters.