ISLAMABAD, Pakistan The ruling coalition that just a week ago drove U.S. ally Pervez Musharraf from the presidency broke apart Monday, throwing Pakistan into political turmoil just as it faces an increasingly difficult fight against Islamic militants.
The collapse of the fragile alliance threw more power to Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of assassinated ex-leader Benazir Bhutto and a corruption-tainted former polo player who now becomes the front-runner to replace Musharraf.
Fulfilling a threat he made last week, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif pulled his party out of the coalition after a dispute with Zardari over whether to restore the chief justice of the Supreme Court, Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudry, who was ousted by Musharraf.
There was concern within Bhutto's party, the Pakistan People's Party, that such a restoration would lead to the prosecution of Musharraf and perhaps even Zardari and that a fight would weaken the government's ability to fight militants.
Sharif's withdrawal will cost Zardari and the PPP their majority in parliament. But Zardari is expected to rally support from allies and form a new government with the help of small parties.
And if he does that and wins the presidency Sept. 6 in a vote by lawmakers, as he is on course to do, Zardari would add to his powers and be in a position to create a more stable government. Sharif told reporters he would play a "constructive" role in the opposition but has already pledged to run a retired judge against Zardari next month.
The government needs a strengthened hand to tackle the growing Taliban militancy in Pakistan and end the instability that has plagued the country for the past year. The test will come when the new government takes on the militants and at the same time tries to find a solution to rising food and fuel prices that are slowing economic growth.
Zardari's party movZAed almost immediately to calm U.S. fears that Pakistan's new civilian rulers are paying too little attention to Islamic militants, banning the Pakistani Taliban group that claims to be behind a string of suicide bombings.
The United States has been carefully watching the alliance unravel since Musharraf, a former army chief and a stalwart supporter of the war on terror, who resigned after nine contentious years in power to avoid impeachment. Before her death, Bhutto had sought to convince the Americans that a civilian government run by her party would be able to more effectively wage a war on terror because it would have firm democratic underpinnings.
The ban came after a spectacular attack on one of the country's most sensitive military installations that left 67 dead. Anyone caught helping the group will face up to 10 years in prison. The Pakistan Taliban will also have its bank accounts and assets frozen.
Hours earlier, the government had rejected a Taliban cease-fire offer in the Bajur border region, where an army offensive has reportedly killed hundreds in recent weeks and prompted more than 200,000 others to flee.
The Pakistani Taliban, or Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, is an umbrella group of militants along the rugged Afghan border set up last year. Its leadership is formally separate from the Taliban movement that was swept from power in Afghanistan in 2001.
Still, some of its members are believed to help recruit, arm and train volunteers for the insurgency against government and NATO troops in Afghanistan. And Al-Qaida operatives perhaps even Osama bin Laden or al-Qaida No. 2 Ayman al-Zawahri have found refuge in the areas it controls.
The ban also bars Pakistanis from offering money or other support to the Pakistani Taliban, or handing out its propaganda. The government may also offer rewards for the arrests of its leaders.
The militants called the ban meaningless. "We are neither registered nor do we have any bank accounts," said Muslim Khan, one of its spokesmen. "We are slaves to no one."
U.S. State Department spokesman Robert Wood said the breakup of the coalition was "very much an internal Pakistani matter" that wouldn't affect Pakistani-U.S. cooperation against extremism.
Some analysts said it might even strengthen that cooperation by giving civilian democrats more power over the army, which U.S. and Afghan officials have accused of secretly assisting militants.
The People's Party seems to have secured enough support from opposition and independent lawmakers to secure the presidency for Zardari and shore up its parliamentary majority, avoiding the need for new elections.
If Zardari secures the presidency, he will become one of the most powerful civilian leaders in Pakistan's 61-year history. The head of state holds the power to dismiss Parliament and appoint army chiefs, and Zardari's loyal, hand-picked prime minister, Yousuf Raza Gilani, remains in office.
Zardari has already curried favor with both the army and the United States by easing Musharraf from office without a fuss.
Zardari appealed to Sharif to rejoin the coalition and said the judges would be restored "very soon." But he also said his party could govern without him.
"We hope that (Sharif) will not cause us any pain, nor that we will cause any pain to him," Zardari told state-run television.
Musharraf imposed emergency rule and purged the Supreme Court in November to halt legal challenges to his continued rule. The moved deepened his unpopularity and helped his enemies to victory in February parliamentary elections, a platform they used to drive him out with the threat of impeachment.
Bringing back the judges could open the door to new legal action against the ousted ex-general, including treason charges sought by Sharif a move that would dismay the army and Washington.
Analysts say Zardari may also fear that the judges might reopen corruption charges against him dating back to his wife's turns in government.
A Swiss prosecutor said Monday he had dropped money laundering charges against Zardari because an 11-year investigation had turned up too little evidence. Pakistani authorities dropped a string of graft cases against Zardari earlier this year.
Mehmood Shah, a former government official in the troubled northwest, said the ban probably marked the end of government's efforts to talk peace with hardcore militants.
He said the U.S. government could help by reining in crossborder strikes on militant targets because it made the government in Islamabad look weak.
"If the government is showing resolve, they should be encouraged," he said. "If Pakistan fails to overcome this problem, the whole world will have failed."
Violence continued to flare Monday. Eight were killed in a pre-dawn rocket-and-bomb strike on the home of provincial lawmaker Waqar Ahmed Khan in Swat, police and the politician said. His brother, two nephews and five guards were killed.