Prime minister's 'conspiracy' comments jolt Pakistan

Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani hinted that the military may be plotting against Pakistan's civilian government (file photo).

Story highlights

  • Military denies prime minister's claim of a plot
  • Prime Minister Gilani says there are conspiracies to bring down the government
  • Local newspapers suggest a clash is looming between civilian and military authorities
  • The prime minister's remarks come amid widespread controversy over a leaked memo

Pakistan was abuzz Friday with political rumor and intrigue about the possibility of a looming clash between elected leaders and the military after Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani said he believed plots were under way to topple the government.

"Government, Army on collision course," read the headline of the main story on the website of Dawn, a leading English-language newspaper in Pakistan. "Gilani takes army head on," said the top article on the website of The Nation, another major daily.

The papers appeared to be interpreting Gilani's comments Thursday, in which he said there were "conspiracies and intrigues being hatched to pack up the elected government," as an implicit attack on Pakistan's powerful military, which has seized power from civilian authorities a number of times in the country's history.

Gilani said Thursday that no institution "can be a state within a state" and that "every ministry, including the Ministry of Defense, is answerable to the Parliament of Pakistan."

The Pakistani military denied Gilani's claims Friday, issuing a statement saying the "Army has and will continue to support democratic process in the country."

Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, chief of army staff, "dispelled the speculations of any military takeover and said that these are misleading and are being used as a bogey to divert the focus from the real issues," the military statement said.

Gilani's provocative statements come amid a turbulent period in Pakistan's domestic politics and in its relations with the United States.

There is widespread controversy in Pakistan over a scandal -- dubbed "Memogate" -- in which Pakistan's civilian leaders were supposedly coming up with a plan to unseat the country's military leadership.

The killing of Osama bin Laden by U.S. Navy Seals in May during a raid on a compound located only about a mile from the Pakistan Military Academy in Abbottabad enraged the Pakistani public and deeply embarrassed the military.

Relations became even more strained in November, after NATO forces killed two dozen Pakistani soldiers in airstrikes near the Afghan border -- an attack the United States insists was an act of self-defense after troops were fired upon.

Amid heavy domestic pressure in Pakistan, President Asif Ali Zardari's government made decisions unpopular with the United States, such as stopping the transport of NATO supplies through Pakistan and asking the U.S. military to vacate the Shamsi air base.

The Memogate scandal has emboldened Zardari's opponents, who think he favors closer ties with the U.S. military.

Husain Haqqani, the former Pakistani ambassador to the United States who resigned in November, is accused of writing a memo setting out the scheme.

The plot reportedly called for taking power away from the country's senior military and intelligence leaders, requesting U.S. assistance in stopping a military coup, asking for American backing of the Zardari government, and vowing to make Pakistan's foreign policy favorable to the United States.

Haqqani says he didn't write the memo, which allegedly was passed along to U.S. officials by Pakistani-American businessman Mansoor Ijaz days after a U.S. military raid killed bin Laden in May.

Following petitions filed by different people -- including Nawaz Sharif, the head of the major opposition party -- the Supreme Court of Pakistan has been investigating the Memogate scandal for a couple of weeks.

Complicating matters further, Zardari traveled to Dubai for medical reasons earlier this month, fueling speculation in Pakistan that the embattled leader may resign. Zardari has since returned to Pakistan.