ISLAMABAD — The confrontation between Pakistan's civilian government and its powerful army escalated sharply Wednesday when Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani fired the defense secretary and the military warned that remarks by Gilani this week had "potentially grievous consequences."
The removal of the retired general who was the top bureaucrat in the defense ministry — replacing him with a ruling party loyalist — fueled rumors that the government is considering changing the military's leadership, a move that's legally authorized but poses huge risks.
It was the latest in an exchange of highly provocative moves that have raised fears of Pakistan's fourth coup since independence in 1947. The military is widely thought to be trying to remove U.S.-allied President Asif Ali Zardari, but through a court case involving a memo sent to the top U.S. military leadership requesting help reining in the military. Zardari's determination to hang on despite the so-called "Memogate" scandal, analysts believe, could result in another coup.
Those fears rose even higher after the army reportedly called a meeting of senior commanders for Thursday and announced a change in command of the 111th Brigade, the army unit based in Rawalpindi that has been used to stage coups. The military said Wednesday that it was a routine change in command.
The military and Zardari's government have been in a state of near-constant tension since the most recent period of military rule ended with elections in 2008, which restored a civilian-led democratic government. The army considers the government too close to the United States but fears an international backlash and loss of billions of dollars in U.S. financial support if it stages an outright coup.
Analysts believe that top army officials instead are maneuvering to topple the government through the memo case. Pakistan's former ambassador to Washington is accused of making a "treacherous" written offer to the United States to rein in Pakistan's military, in return for American support for the civilian government.
The case, aimed squarely against Zardari, is before the Supreme Court, which appointed a judicial commission that began hearings this week. The main accuser in Memogate is scheduled to testify Monday.
In written testimonies to the court, the army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, and the head of the military's spy agency, Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, pressed the judges to investigate the allegations against the former envoy, Hussain Haqqani. Pasha said that he had "seen enough corroborative material" to prove the allegations against Haqqani, who was forced to resign over the affair.
Gilani this week dubbed affidavits given by the army chief and the head of the military's spy agency as "unconstitutional and illegal." He made the remarks in an interview with a Chinese newspaper while the army chief was on an official tour in China, Pakistan's closest ally.
The military, in a highly unusual statement, responded Wednesday that "there can be no allegation more serious" than those leveled against Kayani and Pasha.
"This has very serious ramifications with potentially grievous consequences for the country," the military's statement said, adding that it had "followed the book" in its responses to the court.
The government had asked the court to drop the case and leave it to an investigation by a parliamentary committee. Officials said they were shocked that the military's affidavits hadn't been cleared by the government first, though technically they were filed through the government's attorney general.
The Memogate furor rests on the allegations of an American businessman with Pakistani roots, Mansoor Ijaz. In May, Ijaz alleges, he delivered a missive dictated by Haqqani on Zardari's behalf to the then-chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen.