ISLAMABAD — Pakistan's prime minister claimed Thursday there was a conspiracy to oust the country's civilian government, a sign of growing tension with the army over a secret memo sent to Washington earlier this year asking for help in averting a supposed military coup.
The conflict between the army and the government intensified this week after the Supreme Court began a hearing into the scandal, which has already forced Pakistan's ambassador to the U.S. to resign and also threatens the president.
The political crisis comes as Pakistan is already facing a violent Taliban insurgency, a failing economy and severe tension with its most important ally, the United States, over NATO airstrikes that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers in November.
"Conspiracies are being hatched to pack up the elected government," Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani said during a speech in Islamabad.
The prime minister did not specifically blame the military, but later in the day he made clear in a speech to parliament that the army must operate under the control of the government.
"They have to be answerable to this parliament," Gilani said. "They cannot be a state within a state."
The army is considered the strongest institution in Pakistan and has ruled the country for much of its 64-year history after carrying out a series of military coups. Analysts have expressed doubt that a coup is likely at this time, but the memo scandal has certainly exacerbated already poor ties between the army and the government.
Gilani's comments are a sharp turn for the prime minister. He rejected the notion of a standoff between the army and the civilian leadership less than a week ago. The Supreme Court opened its hearing into the scandal since then and has demanded a reply from President Asif Ali Zardari.
The government has questioned the need for the court hearing, saying the parliament is already investigating the matter.
Mansoor Ijaz, a U.S. businessman of Pakistani origin, has accused Pakistan's former ambassador to Washington, Husain Haqqani, of crafting the memo sent to a senior U.S. military official in May asking for help in averting a coup following the American raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
Ijaz claimed Haqqani acted with Zardari's support. Both Haqqani and the president have denied the allegations, but the envoy resigned in the wake of the scandal.
Some analysts have questioned Ijaz's credibility and suggested the affair is a conspiracy cooked up by the military to embarrass the government. They have pointed out that fear of a coup in May is strange, since the military was in an unfavorable position at the time.
The raid against bin Laden in a Pakistani garrison town enraged the army because it was not told about it beforehand. But it also humiliated the force because it was not able to stop the operation.
Gilani reminded the parliament Thursday that his government extended "solid support" to the army and its intelligence agency, the ISI, following the raid.