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Associated Press
Afghan refugee boy Shazad Mohammed, 8, clears the way in front of his home from the mud, following a rainy night, in a slum on the outskirts of Islamabad, Pakistan, Monday, Jan. 16, 2012.

ISLAMABAD — The political crisis engulfing Pakistan deepened Monday when the nation's top court clashed with a beleaguered government already under attack from the powerful army — a combined assault that could bring down the U.S.-backed administration.

The Supreme Court launched contempt proceedings against Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani for failing to carry out its order to reopen a corruption case against President Asif Ali Zardari and demanded Gilani make a rare appearance before the judges Thursday. If the court convicts Gilani of contempt, he could serve up to six months in prison and be disqualified from holding office.

The nuclear-armed country is already grappling with an ailing economy and a violent Islamist insurgency. The latest clash could also complicate U.S. efforts to get Pakistan to cooperate on the war in neighboring Afghanistan, especially peace talks with the Taliban — although Washington had made little headway on that even before this crisis.

"The Supreme Court and the government are in an open clash now, and it seems fairly obvious the court is unwilling to back off," said Cyril Almeida, a lawyer and columnist for Pakistan's Dawn newspaper.

Even before the latest clash with the court, the government was locked in a bitter conflict with the army over a secret memo sent to Washington last year aimed at stopping a supposed military coup.

The Supreme Court ruling boosted the sense that the administration could fall, squeezed between the court and Pakistan's powerful generals. Some observers have speculated the army is working behind the scenes with the court to oust the government by constitutional means.

"Once the Supreme Court, the army and the political opposition agree the government needs to go sooner rather than later, it seems very difficult for the government to stay on," Almeida said.

Still the court could have its own reasons for stepping up pressure on the government. Supreme Court Justice Mohammad Iftikhar Chaudhry has clashed with Zardari in the past, and the judges could be fed up with the government defying its order to reopen the corruption case against the president.

Gilani promised to appear before the Supreme Court on Thursday but warned both the judges and the army that they must protect democracy.

"It cannot happen that they derail system," said Gilani after a majority in parliament — mostly the ruling party and its allies — passed a resolution supporting the government.

The resolution said the balance of powers "must be fully respected and adhered to and all state institutions must strictly function within the limits imposed on them by the constitution."

Critics have predicted the civilian government's demise many times since it was elected in 2008 after 10 years of military rule, and it has always defied the forecasts. But this time around, the crisis has drawn the army in more directly, and the court seems to be in no mood to compromise

Since Pakistan was founded in 1947, no civilian government has ever completed a full five-year term before being toppled by a military coup or forced to call early elections. There have been three coups over that period.