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, and while a fourth is considered unlikely, early polls look increasingly possible because of the rising tension.
The Supreme Court has ordered the government to ask Swiss authorities to reopen a corruption case against the president that dates back to the 1990s. The case centers on $60 million in kickbacks that Zardari and his late wife, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, allegedly received from Swiss cargo companies.
The government has refused to reopen the case, saying Zardari has immunity, and supporters say the court is pursuing a vendetta against the civilian leadership.
Zardari has been vulnerable to prosecution since 2009 when the Supreme Court struck down an amnesty granting him and other leading political figures immunity from past graft cases. The court deemed the amnesty, which was granted in 2008, as unconstitutional.
The court initiated contempt proceedings against the prime minister on Monday after the government failed to respond to an order outlining a series of punitive options the judges could take if the government did not reopen the case against Zardari. Attorney General Maulvi Anwarul Haq told the court he had not received instructions from the country's leaders on how to respond to the order _ a response that clearly angered the judges.
Faced with going to jail, Gilani may tell the court during his appearance Thursday that he intends to write the letter to Swiss authorities authorizing them to reopen the case against Zardari, but that could come with a serious political cost.
Zardari stated in an interview last week that he would never send the letter, saying it would dishonor his late wife. Last year, Swiss prosecutors told reporters they couldn't reopen the case because Zardari had immunity.
The prime minister has also clashed with army _ the strongest institution in the country _ over the memo scandal.
The army was outraged by the memo, which was allegedly sent by the government and offered the U.S. a raft of favorable security policies in exchange for reining in the military.
The army pushed the Supreme Court to open an inquiry into the scandal last month against the wishes of the government, which has denied any connection to the memo and argued the matter was already being probed by parliament.
Gilani criticized the army last week for cooperating with the Supreme Court probe, saying the standoff was nothing less than a choice between "democracy and dictatorship." The prime minister's comments followed a warning from the generals of possible "grievous consequences" ahead if the government did not stop its criticism of the army.
Gilani warned members of parliament Thursday, especially in the opposition, of serious consequences if they didn't stand by the government in supporting democracy.
"If there is no democracy, everything will be finished," said Gilani. "If there is no democracy, we will all go together."
Associated Press writers Chris Brummitt and Asif Shahzad contributed to this report.