Pakistan's military ruler said Sunday that elections would be held by January but set no time limit on emergency rule that has suspended citizens' rights, saying it was essential for fighting terrorism and ensuring a free and fair vote.

Opposition leader Benazir Bhutto called the announcement by President Gen. Pervez Musharraf a "first positive step," but said it would be difficult to hold elections under emergency rule. Other opposition politicians said Musharraf's sweeping powers, which have led to thousands of arrests, would only make a mockery of the democratic process.

In his first major news conference since suspending the constitution a week ago, Musharraf bristled at criticism of his commitment to restoring democracy and was unapologetic about his decision to purge the top ranks of the judiciary, which had challenged his dominance.

He said he expected to face no foreign sanctions for resorting to authoritarian measures, and declared the current parliament would be dissolved in the coming week, paving the way for elections to be held on schedule -- despite earlier concerns they could be delayed by up to a year.

"We should have elections before the 9th of January," Musharraf told reporters at his presidential residence in Islamabad.

The army chief imposed the state of emergency on Nov. 3, citing a growing threat posed by Taliban and Al Qeada-linked militants. But critics say the move was aimed at extending his grip on power, noting that the main targets of his crackdown so far have been human rights workers, political activists and lawyers.

Sounding indignant and sometimes angry, Musharraf said the declaration of the emergency was in the interests of Pakistan, not to save his own political skin.

"It was the most difficult decision I have ever taken in my life," he said, wearing a dark blue suit rather than his army fatigues.

"I could have preserved myself, but then it would have damaged the nation. I found myself between a rock and a hard surface. I have no personal ego and ambitions to guard. I have the national interest foremost," he said. "Whatever the cost, I bear responsibility, and I stand by it."

Musharraf will please his Western allies with his announcement of early elections, but could worry them with his refusal to commit to a date for lifting the emergency, which many observers and critics here say is tantamount to martial law.

He claimed the emergency would "ensure absolute, fair and transparent elections," and said that Pakistan would invite international observers to scrutinize the vote.

Bhutto, who before the emergency had been in talks with Musharraf on a post-election alliance, said the president was sending conflicting signals and that "in the presence of ... the emergency, the holding of fair elections seems to be difficult."

But she added that she had "not shut the door for talks" with Musharraf.

Other opposition politicians were more strident in their criticism.

"How can the elections be held in a free and fair manner when the emergency is in place?" asked Zafar Ali Shah, a senior leader of the opposition Pakistan Muslim League-N party, noting that at present public gatherings are illegal.

Others expressed concerns about intimidation and threats of further arrests.

Musharraf said opposition supporters who had been rounded up since the emergency declaration would be released to take part in the polls, but warned they could be detained again.

Anyone who "disturbs law and order and wants to create anarchy in the name of elections and democracy, we will not allow that," he said.

His comments followed his decision to amend a law to give army courts sweeping powers to try civilians on charges ranging from treason to inciting public unrest.

That, in theory, could include Bhutto, a former prime minister who has vowed to lead thousands of supporters on a 185-mile protest march on Tuesday.

Musharraf said he had to take the dramatic step of imposing emergency rule to address the "turmoil, shock and confusion" in Pakistan and to better fight Islamic militants in the interior of the troubled northwest.

That battle, he said, would continue until the extremists are defeated.

Musharraf also declared he would give up his army uniform, but only once his controversial Oct. 6 presidential election victory had been endorsed -- regarded by many observers as a formality now that he has remade the Supreme Court and ousted popular judges.

His opponents argue he should have been disqualified because he contested the vote as army chief.

"The moment they give a decision ... I should take an oath of office as civilian president of Pakistan. I hope that happens as soon as possible," Musharraf said.

He dismissed speculation that he could struggle to maintain the loyalty of the powerful army once he ruled as a civilian.

"Even if I'm not in uniform, this army will be with me," Musharraf said.

U.S. President George W. Bush earlier described promises to restore civilian rule as "positive," throwing Washington's support firmly behind the embattled Pakistani leader, who is considered to be a close ally in the U.S. war on terror.

Musharraf said foreign leaders who had telephoned him had been understanding of the situation in Pakistan and that he did not expect international aid to be cut as a result.

"They do understand our ground realities, mainly the issue of terrorism and how we have to combat it," he said. "If we are on the path to democracy I'm sure they will understand and no such problem will occur."

Musharraf launched a tirade against the recently deposed chief justice, Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, who this year had become a thorn in the president's dominance of Pakistan. He defended the decision to oust him, alleging that Chaudhry had engaged in corruption.

Musharraf said there was no chance that any of the Supreme Court judges who were removed or refused to take the oath of office under his "provisional" constitution would be reinstated.

Even as Musharraf spoke, small but angry protests against his rule continued.

"If he doesn't go, Pakistan will not survive," said retired civil servant Roadad Kahn, 85, who joined around 100 demonstrators gathered outside the offices of independent Geo TV, one of dozens of stations that have been taken off the air.

Holding banners and wearing black armbands, the protesters said all they wanted was to see Musharraf step down as army chief.

"I have taken a vow that, with the help of God, I am not going to die until I have seen the end of military rule in Pakistan," Kahn said.

Three reporters from Britain's Daily Telegraph, meanwhile, left Pakistan on Sunday after being expelled in protest of a commentary in their newspaper that used an expletive in reference to Musharraf -- who was unapologetic.

The editorial infringed "norms of behavior," he said. "I expect an apology."