The United States has welcomed the naming of a new interim prime minister in Thailand, but said the move should be seen as only a first step by military leaders toward meeting pledges to restore democracy. The new prime minister's first foreign visitor was the U.S. ambassador to Thailand.

Officials here are expressing cautious approval over the selection of retired army general Surayud Chulanont as Thailand's interim prime minister.

But they say personalities are less important than tangible action by the country's military leadership to restore civil liberties and put Thailand back on a course to democracy.

Despite his background as a former army chief, the 63-year-old Mr. Surayad has a reputation for trying to keep the Thai military out of politics.

A senior U.S. official who spoke to reporters here said the new prime minister is well known to the United States and others in the international community, and that no one sees him as a "stalking horse" (puppet) for the Thai military.

At the same time, the official said it is of greater importance to the United States that the military leaders who ousted the civilian government of Thaksin Shinawatra last month fulfill pledges to restore civil liberties and press freedom, and make a "real concerted effort" to hold elections, as they have promised for next year.

At a news briefing, State Department Deputy Spokesman Tom Casey confirmed that U.S. Ambassador to Thailand Skip Boyce had met with Mr. Surayud in what was the interim leader's first meeting with a foreign envoy.

Casey said the meeting should not be viewed as approval for the September 19 coup, which the United States has described as a setback for Thai democracy. He said the envoy used the meeting to stress the U.S. expectation that democracy pledges will be fulfilled.

"Part of what Ambassador Boyce's meeting with the new prime minister did was to continue to reiterate our concerns about the coup itself, and the importance of this interim government taking the steps that it's pledged to take, to bring about a return of democracy as soon as possible," he said. "And I think it is appropriate and important that the message be conveyed directly from our ambassador to the head of this new government, because we are serious about seeing this process move forward and seeing a return to democracy in Thailand as quickly as possible."

Late last week, the Bush administration announced the suspension of nearly $24 million in military-related aid to Thailand, an action mandated by U.S. legislation barring such aid to countries where civilian governments have been ousted by the military.

The senior official said any restoration of aid is unlikely until new elections are held, and he said other U.S. sanctions are possible if, as he put it, "they do not go in the right direction."