WASHINGTON An envoy of U.S. President Barack Obama privately urged Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on Tuesday to prepare for a transition of power, the closest the United States has come to urging Mubarak to step aside.
The New York Times reported that former U.S. ambassador Frank Wisner conveyed a message that Mubarak should not run for another term in September elections.
U.S. officials confirmed that Wisner met with Mubarak and delivered a message about the need to prepare for an "orderly transition."
As protests across Egypt drew hundreds of thousands of people demanding Mubarak immediately leave office, the words from the envoy marked a shift for the United States as it moved further to distance itself from a longtime staunch ally.
Obama has struggled to balance pressure to back protesters' calls for political change against any perception it is meddling in another country's affairs. U.S. officials have been concerned that publicly urging Mubarak to quit would unsettle other authoritarian U.S. allies in the region.
Mubarak, 82, has been a close U.S. partner for decades.
When asked if the United States might publicly call for Mubarak to go, one U.S. official said, "These things are best done privately."
Critics have accused the U.S. administration of being slow to grasp the scale of upheaval in Egypt after similar protests toppled nearby Tunisia's longtime president on January 14.
Also Tuesday, the U.S. ambassador to Egypt, Margaret Scobey, spoke to Nobel Peace laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, an opposition figure who has seen rising support from a broad swath of Egyptian groups.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates spoke with Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, Egypt's defense minister. The Pentagon declined to give details about the call.
Oil prices jumped above $102 per barrel on Tuesday amid concern about port disruptions in Egypt.
ElBaradei, the former head of the U.N. nuclear watchdog, returned to Egypt last week and has since seen growing support from opposition groups, including the banned Islamist group the Muslim Brotherhood, Christians, intellectuals and others.
Some influential U.S. lawmakers on Tuesday called for Mubarak to go, including John Kerry, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and an Obama ally.
In an opinion piece in The New York Times, Kerry urged Mubarak to "step aside gracefully to make way for a new power structure."
(Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell, Phil Stewart and David Alexander; Writing by Caren Bohan; Editing by Doina Chiacu)