* Clinton says U.S. supports government reforms
* U.S. urges time to prepare for elections
* Envoy suggests Mubarak still necessary (Adds Biden speaks to Suleiman, Clinton quote, State Dept comment)
By Andrew Quinn
MUNICH, Feb 5 (Reuters) - The United States said on Saturday it backs Egypt's drive for orderly reforms to allow democratic elections in a sign of a new U.S. emphasis on gradual transition to resolve the crisis over President Hosni Mubarak's rule.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton threw her weight behind the reform effort launched by Mubarak's handpicked Vice President, Omar Suleiman, saying the government's fragile dialogue with the opposition must be given time to unfold or risk being derailed by radical forces.
"There are forces at work in any society, and particularly one that is facing these kinds of challenges, that will try to derail or overtake the process to pursue their own specific agenda," Clinton told a security conference in Munich.
"Which is why I think it's important to support the transition process announced by the Egyptian Government, actually headed by now Vice President Omar Suleiman."
Suleiman began meeting independent opposition figures on Saturday to go through various options, including a proposal for him to assume the president's powers for an interim period.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden telephoned Suleiman on Saturday to ask about progress on the transition as well as to express concern over continued attacks on civil groups and detention of journalists, activists and human rights advocates, the White House said in a statement.
"He stressed the need for a concrete reform agenda, a clear timeline, and immediate steps that demonstrate to the public and the opposition that the Egyptian government is committed to reform," the statement said.
In one reform gesture, the leadership of Mubarak's ruling party quit on Saturday following 12 days of protests that have shaken Egypt to its core. But protesters dismissed the move as a ruse that would not deter them from their goal of ousting the president immediately.
U.S. officials said Clinton was not explicitly endorsing a future political role for Suleiman, Mubarak's long-time intelligence chief who is viewed sceptically by many in Egypt's opposition movement.
U.S. President Barack Obama himself has urged Mubarak to "make the right decision" and U.S. officials have over the past week indicated they believe his days in power may be numbered.
But Clinton, seeking to place renewed emphasis on the process of political transition, underscored the U.S. view that it will take both time and patience to lay the groundwork for truly democratic new elections to take place.
"Our view is the early discussions are the right thing for the government to have initiated and now the opposition should get involved in them to test the proposition that the government is serious," said one senior U.S. official.
Obama has repeatedly urged Mubarak to begin the transition immediately, and Clinton said she believed that this process was already under way and should be allowed time to mature.
"The principles are very clear, the operational details are very challenging," Clinton said on organising future elections.
"President Mubarak has announced he will not stand for re-election, nor will his son," she said, noting that the government had also pledged constitutional reforms and allowing greater political participation.
"That is what the government has said it is trying to do, that is what we are supporting, and hope to see it move as orderly but as expeditiously as possible under the circumstances."
The U.S. position was further clouded Saturday by comments from a retired U.S. diplomat who Obama sent as his envoy to speak to Mubarak. Frank Wisner told the Munich meeting by teleconference Mubarak should stay in place at least for now.
"We need to get a national consensus around the pre-conditions for the next step forward. The president must stay in office to steer those changes," Wisner said.
The State Department scrambled to distance itself from Wisner's remarks, saying it appreciated his work in Cairo but did not necessarily share his views on Mubarak's future.
"He has not continued in any official capacity following the trip. The views he expressed today are his own. He did not coordinate his comments with the U.S. government," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said.
Egypt has dominated Clinton's schedule at the Munich conference, where she used her speech to warn that the broader Middle East faces a "perfect storm" of unrest unless regional leaders get cracking on political reforms. [ID:nN05120132]
Egypt has been a U.S. ally throughout Mubarak's 30-year tenure and it is strategically vital to American interests because of its peace treaty with Israel, control of the Suez Canal and steadfast opposition to militant Islam.
Washington's approach to the Egyptian crisis is also being closely watched by other U.S.-allied leaders in the region, ranging from oil giant Saudi Arabia to Yemen, now an important frontline state in the battle against al Qaeda.
The United States gives Egypt more than $1.3 billion a year in military aid, giving Washington political leverage, albeit limited. (Editing by Diana Abdallah)