By Sheree Sardar and Amena Bakr
ISLAMABAD/DUBAI (Reuters) - Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari flew to Dubai on Thursday on a personal trip and will return the next day, the foreign ministry said, as tension between the civilian government and the powerful military plunged the country into another crisis.
The prime minister has called a meeting of the cabinet's defense committee for Saturday and the army chief will attend, a government official said, in a possible sign of efforts to reduce friction.
A disputed memo allegedly seeking U.S. help in reining in Pakistan's powerful military has plunged relations with the government to their lowest point since a coup in 1999.
Earlier on Thursday a meeting between army chief General Ashfaq Kayani and his top commanders fueled speculation that the generals, who set security and foreign policies, have lost patience with the government.
Senior officers discussed in detail "prevailing conditions," a source told Reuters, highlighting fears for the economic and political stability of Pakistan, a vital but uneasy ally for the United States in its attempt to fight militancy and bring peace to neighboring Afghanistan.
Military sources say that while they would like Zardari to go, it should be through constitutional means, not another of the coups that have marked half of Pakistan's almost 65 years of independence.
"There is no talk in the military of a takeover," a mid-level army officer, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the matter, told Reuters.
"I don't foresee a military coup."
The military on Wednesday warned of "grievous consequences" after Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani accused the army and spy chiefs of violating the constitution in what has become known as "memogate.
The remarks came after Gilani, citing "gross misconduct" sacked the defense secretary, a post seen usually as the military's main advocate in the civilian bureaucracy.
The Supreme Court has also threatened the government with contempt proceedings that could lead to the fall of senior officials including the prime minister if it does not take action on long-standing corruption cases against Zardari.
Gulf-based Pakistani sources said Zardari made the trip to Dubai, where he maintains a home, for a medical check-up.
However, a senior member of the ruling Pakistan People's Party (PPP) said Zardari was in Dubai to attend a wedding.
No official explanation was made available, fuelling already deep uncertainty about the president's fate.
Pakistanis, tired of power struggles between civilian and military leaders, want the government to focus on issues such as crippling power cuts, the fragile economy and poverty.
"There is complete chaos. But our institutions are busy bringing each other down," said Syed Ali, 23, an engineering student in the city of Lahore.
"They should stop all this and do their jobs."
Zardari went to Dubai for medical treatment last month, triggering speculation that a military take-over in the nuclear-armed South Asian nation was imminent. He returned home a couple of weeks later and has remained defiant.
Newspaper editorials were grim, predicting an imminent showdown between the civilian government and a military that is so powerful it sets security and foreign policies.
"The army is facing a critical situation; it does not want a takeover - and it should not - but it is facing insults from the highest political level," said The News in an editorial titled "Wrong turn."
A senior member of the PPP also warned on Wednesday that both sides appeared to be digging in their heels, although others have played down talk of an imminent showdown.
OSAMA BIN LADEN, MEMOGATE
The military drew rare public criticism after al Qaeda head Osama bin Laden was killed in a unilateral cross-border raid by U.S. special forces troops in a garrison town not far from the Pakistani capital last May.
The memo scandal emerged several months later when a Pakistani-born businessman wrote in a column in the Financial Times about the existence of a memo seeking help from the Pentagon to rein in Pakistan's military.
Businessman Mansoor Ijaz said a Pakistani diplomat had asked for the memo to be delivered to the Pentagon. He later identified the diplomat as Husain Haqqani, a Zardari ally who was then Pakistan's ambassador in Washington.
Haqqani has denied the allegation but has since resigned in a bid to end the scandal, which has resulted in a judicial commission in Pakistan's Supreme Court.
Zardari could face impeachment proceedings if that commission finds a link between him and the memo.
Zardari was elected in 2008 on the back of a sympathy vote after his charismatic wife, former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, was assassinated shortly after returning from self-exile the previous year.
Criminal cases could also haunt Zardari, who earned the title "Mr. 10 Percent" while Bhutto was in power, based on allegations he demanded kickbacks on state contracts.
After his wife's government collapsed in late 1996, he was arrested and charged with corruption, such as kickbacks in deals involving a Swiss company.
He was never convicted, but spent the next eight years in jail. Zardari was also jailed on corruption charges between 1990-93.
Zardari has denied any wrongdoing and says allegations leveled against him are politically motivated.
(Additional reporting by Qasim Nauman and Chris Allbritton in ISLAMABAD, Mubasher Bukhari in LAHORE, and Faisal Aziz in KARACHI; Writing by Michael Georgy; Editing by Ed Lane)