Pakistan's top court vowed Thursday to charge the prime minister with contempt for failing to reopen an old corruption case against the president, escalating a crisis that could oust the premier from office.
Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani told his parliament that he would appear before the Supreme Court as ordered to hear the charges against him on Feb. 13.
The political turmoil could complicate U.S. efforts to patch up its troubled anti-terror alliance with Pakistan and get the country to focus on helping wind down the decade-long war in neighboring Afghanistan.
Pakistan's foreign minister said Thursday that the country would be willing to push the Taliban and their allies to make peace if asked to do so by the Afghan government, an action seen as key to the reconciliation process.
Gilani could face up to six months in prison and be disqualified from holding public office if convicted of contempt.
The announcement was ab escalation in a case that has dogged Pakistan's democratically elected government since 2009, when the Supreme Court ordered it write to Swiss authorities requesting they reopen a corruption case against President Asif Ali Zardari that dates to the late 1990s.
The government has refused, claiming the president enjoys immunity from prosecution while in office.
Gilani's lawyer, Aitzaz Ahsan, tried to convince the judges to drop contempt proceedings against his client Thursday, but after five hours of debate, they said he would be charged.
Government supporters say the court is trying to oust Zardari because of enmity between the president and the chief justice. They also claim the most powerful institution in the country, the army, has turned up the pressure on the government behind the scenes.
Encouraged by the army, the court has opened a separate inquiry threatening Zardari, focused on a secret memo allegedly sent by the government to Washington last year asking for help in stopping a supposed military coup.
The government has denied the allegations, and the case appeared to lose steam last week when the main witness refused to come to Pakistan to testify.
The legal tussles have consumed Pakistan's highly polarized political and media elite, distracting attention from what many say are existential threats to the country like an ailing economy and a violent Islamist insurgency.
The U.S. wants Pakistan to focus on facilitating peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government. Pakistan's role is vital because it has strong historical ties with the militant group, which many believe continue to this day, and insurgent leaders are thought to be based in the country.
The peace process has picked up momentum in recent months with the Taliban's decision to set up a political office in the Gulf state of Qatar to facilitate negotiations. Progress has been limited, hampered by distrust among Afghanistan, Pakistan and the United States.
Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar said Thursday that full-fledged peace talks were still "miles away." Afghan President Hamid Karzai said last year that peace talks with the Taliban were hopeless unless Pakistan did more to support the process, claiming only Islamabad could access the group's leaders.
When asked in an interview with a small group of foreign journalists Thursday whether Pakistan would push the Taliban and the Haqqani network to make peace, Khar said Pakistan is "willing to do whatever the Afghans expect or want us to do."
The process could be awkward for Pakistan, because the government has long claimed that it has severed ties with the groups. Many analysts believe Pakistan has continued the relationships as a way to counter the influence of its archenemy, India, in Afghanistan after foreign forces withdraw.
The peace efforts have also been complicated by friction between Pakistan and the U.S., especially after American airstrikes accidentally killed 24 Pakistani soldiers at two Afghan border posts in November. Pakistan retaliated by closing its border crossings to supplies meant for NATO troops in Afghanistan and kicking the U.S. out of a base used by American drones.
The Pakistani parliament is working out new guidelines to define the U.S.-Pakistan relationship.
Khar said she assumed it "will not be so much of a problem" to reopen the border to NATO supplies after that process is finished.