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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The White House on Wednesday said Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak must begin to take concrete steps toward democratic elections now but stopped short of calling on him to step down immediately.
Publicly, U.S. officials repeated President Barack Obama's call for an orderly transition of power to "begin now." But privately, one official voiced suspicions that Mubarak's government was instigating violence in Egypt.
The Obama administration also reached out to Egypt's top military officer, stressing the U.S. desire to see calm restored to the streets of Cairo, where pro- and anti-Mubarak forces fought with fists, stones and clubs.
While it did not call for Mubarak's immediate departure -- the demand of thousands of protesters who have thronged Cairo's streets for more than a week -- the White House said some kind of unspecified transition must start right away.
"Now means now," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told a briefing.
The White House adopted an increasingly tough line toward Mubarak as it became clear that its ally of 30 years, a bulwark of U.S. efforts to maintain regional stability, wanted to serve out his term until presidential elections in September.
One sign of Mubarak's determination, analysts said, was an Egyptian Foreign Ministry statement saying foreign calls for a democratic transition to begin at once were "rejected and aimed to incite the internal situation in Egypt."
This appeared to be a rebuff to Obama's statement on Tuesday that he had told Mubarak he believed that "an orderly transition must be meaningful, it must be peaceful, and it must begin now."
Mubarak said on Tuesday he would not run for re-election, a major concession for a man who has ruled Egypt for 30 years and has been a cornerstone of U.S. strategy in the Middle East. But that did not satisfy demonstrators who want him out now.
Asked if the White House was satisfied with Mubarak staying until September, when presidential elections are due, Gibbs said that he would not discuss details of Obama's conversation with Mubarak.
The spokesman was also vague about exactly what the United States wanted Mubarak to do.
"There are reforms that need to be undertaken ... There are opposition entities that have to be included in the conversations as we move toward free and fair elections that we've advocated for quite some time," Gibbs said.
A U.S. official and Middle East analysts cited several reforms the United States probably wanted to see, including:
-- repealing Egypt's emergency law, which rights groups say gives the government the ability to detain people indefinitely without charge and bar or disperse election-related rallies;
-- reforming laws that give the current ruling party an effective veto over who can run for president.
"At a minimum, remove the emergency law," said the U.S. official, who spoke on condition that he not be identified. "Frankly, the longer this drags on, the more prescriptive we're going to have to be just because the public pressure (for us to take such a stance) will be irresistible."
Admiral Mike Mullen, the top U.S. uniformed military officer, called his Egyptian counterpart, Lieutenant General Sami Enan, on Wednesday, spokesman Capt. John Kirby said.
Mullen "reiterated his desire to see the situation return to calm and expressed his confidence in the Egyptian military's ability to provide for their country's security, both internally and throughout the Suez Canal area," Kirby said.
Egypt has been a strategic U.S. ally for three decades because of its 1979 peace agreement with Israel, its control of the vital Suez shipping route and its steadfast opposition to militant Islam.
U.S. lawmakers are unlikely to slash $1.5 billion in annual aid to Egypt quickly, but they are watching to see where unrest leads, congressional aides and analysts said.
Mullen's call appeared designed to keep open the lines of communication with the military, a potentially crucial player in Egypt's political crisis.
A senior Obama administration official said Washington believed Mubarak's inner circle was debating whether he needed to do more to satisfy protesters seeking his ouster: "that they have moved but they haven't moved far enough or fast enough."
The senior official, who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity, said Wednesday's clashes could convince the Egyptian military that it needs to pressure Mubarak to do more.
The official also said it was clear that "somebody loyal to Mubarak has unleashed these guys to try to intimidate the protesters," a reference to pro-Mubarak forces.
"That shows that they're still dug in."
Additional reporting by David Alexander, Susan Cornwell, Steve Holland and Andrew Quinn; editing by Doina Chiacu