The top U.S. official for the Caucasus praised Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili on Sunday for his leadership over the last 4 years, but suggested he lift a state of emergency and restore an independent media.

In contrast some Western countries have criticized Saakashvili for a violent crackdown on opposition protests and the muzzling critical media last week.

The president of Georgia has shown remarkable leadership, said Matt Bryza, assistant secretary of state for European affairs.

For democracy to move forward and for the people of Georgia to restore their faith in the process, obviously these steps (lifting the state of emergency and restoring freedom of the press) need to be taken, he told Reuters.

We trust in Georgia, the people of Georgia, the leadership of Georgia.

Saakashvili shocked his Western allies on Wednesday, ordering police to baton charge and fire tear gas at protesters calling for his resignation and then imposed a state of emergency, justifying it by accusing Russia of stirring unrest.

Russia has denied the charges.

NATO and European countries issued strongly worded statements condemning the police action and the emergency law -- which bans independent media and meetings -- but the United States has adopted a far softer tone.

Saakashvili rose to power in a peaceful 2003 revolution and has pursued aggressively pro-Western policies, aiming to join both NATO and the European Union, as well as sending hundreds of soldiers to support the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

The United States considers Georgia to be one of its most staunch allies in the former Soviet Union and critical to its policies in the Caucasus, an east-west transit route wedged between Russia and the Middle East.

And the United States would not tell Saakashvili how to govern, Bryza said.

We are not a big brother, we are a big friend, he said.

The opposition has called Saakashvili corrupt and guilty of mismanaging the economy. They also say he is using the emergency laws to give himself an unfair advantage in a January 5 presidential election he called on Thursday.

Bryza will spend his four-day trip to Georgia meeting opposition leaders and media, as well as members of the government and Saakahsvili.

(Editing by Matthew Jones)