ISLAMABAD — Pakistan's military warned Wednesday of "grievous consequences" for the country after the prime minister accused the army chief of violating the constitution, adding to a sense of crisis that some believe could end in the ouster of government.
The government dismissed the defense secretary, a retired general seen as an army representative within the civilian setup, another ominous sign of near-open conflict in a nation that has seen repeated military coups in its six-decade history.
Political instability has dogged the government since it was elected to office in 2008 after a 10-year army dictatorship, and there have been frequent, wrong predictions of its demise.
The current standoff has hampered the nuclear-armed country's ability to battle al-Qaida and Taliban militants and coincided with the near collapse of ties between Pakistan and the United States, a relationship seen as key to negotiating an end to the war in Afghanistan.
Tensions between the army and the government of President Asif Ali Zardari have soared since a scandal involving a memo sent to Washington asking for its help in reining in the army broke late last year. The memo outraged the army, and the Supreme Court ordered a probe to establish whether it had been sanctioned by Zardari, something that could lead to impeachment hearings.
As part of the investigation, army chief Gen. Ashfaq Pervez Kayani and the head of the main spy agency, Lt Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, submitted statements to the court in which they suggested the memo was part of a conspiracy against the army.
This week, Prime Minister Yousuf Reza Gilani said in an interview to a Chinese newspaper that Kayani and Pasha had violated the constitution by doing this. The interview was also published by Pakistan's state-run news agency.
An army statement said those allegations had "very serious ramifications with potentially grievous consequences for the country." It did not elaborate.
Around the same time, Defense Secretary Lt. Gen. Naeem Khalid Lodhi was fired because of "misconduct" relating to his role in submitting the statements to the court, according to a government official who didn't give his name because of the sensitivity of the situation.
Lodhi is regarded as having more power than the defense minister because of his direct ties to the army high command.
The court is also set to rule next week on another case that could also see the dismissal of the government.
It wants the attorney general to open corruption proceedings against Zardari over a once shelved case, something the government is refusing to do. On Tuesday, judges warned they could dismiss Gilani unless he followed their order to pursue the case.
"I think the lines have been drawn, now it depends on who fires the next shot," said Rasul Bakhsh Rais, professor of political science at Lahore University of Management Sciences. "It is a three dimensional war: the judiciary, the political executive and the armed forces."
Observers say political pressure is growing to topple the government before Senate elections scheduled for March, which are expected to give Zardari's party a majority in the upper house that would give him significant political power for the next six years. The country also is to hold general elections next year, although some are pushing for the vote to be held sooner.
Most independent analysts say the army has little appetite for a direct coup but is happy to allow the Supreme Court, believed to be hostile to Zardari, to end the current setup via "constitutional" means.
"We can't rule out those impulse. They are rooted in history, but right now they have decided not to. Rather they will stay by the sidelines and watch the court," said Rais.