Pakistan's opposition parties have called on President Pervez Musharraf to lift a state of emergency, saying the upcoming parliamentary elections will be meaningless if held under emergency laws.

Former prime minister Benazir Bhutto said Sunday that the emergency laws will make campaigning difficult. Ms. Bhutto is in Lahore, where she plans to lead a protest march Tuesday against the state of emergency

Speaking in a U.S. television interview Sunday, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice welcomed General Musharraf's plans to hold parliamentary elections by January 9th and his stated desire to step down as army chief.

She said those are essential steps to get Pakistan back onto a democratic path, but so is lifting the state of emergency.

Rice said the current situation in Pakistan is not ideal, but the United States will stand by the South Asian country as a friend and ally.

General Musharraf announced Sunday that Pakistan's national and provincial assemblies will be dissolved in the coming days to prepare for January's elections. However, he said emergency rule will continue until then, to ensure free and fair elections.

The Pakistani president has retained his military leadership since taking power in a coup in 1999, but he also said Sunday that he will step down as a general and be sworn in as a civilian for his second presidential term.

Parliament re-elected General Musharraf last month, but Pakistan's courts are still hearing claims that the voting process was illegal. The president says he cannot relinquish his commission until those legal challenges are completed.

He dismantled Pakistan's Supreme Court earlier this month and created new courts whose judges swore allegiance to the provisional constitution and are considered sympathetic to him.

Some information for this report was provided by AFP and AP.