ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Beleaguered President Asif Ali Zardari landed in Pakistan early Friday after a short trip abroad, returning to face a simmering conflict between Pakistan’s civilian government and its armed forces.
Zardari, the main target of what his ruling party depicts as a pressure campaign by the military and the Supreme Court, flew Thursday afternoon to Dubai to attend a wedding and see a doctor, his office said. Zardari underwent medical treatment in Dubai last month, triggering rumors that he was being forced out by the military over a scandal, dubbed “Memogate,” that has roiled the nation.
On Thursday, Zardari instead drew criticism for leaving the country at a time when his government again seemed to be on the verge of collapse. But some analysts theorized that the trip was calculated to spur rumors, positioning Zardari to appear defiant upon his return early Friday.
The trip came a day after the latest developments in a civilian-military confrontation prompted predictions that a coup was looming. Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani fired the civilian defense secretary, a retired lieutenant general who was close to the army. And the army warned that Gilani’s recent criticism of military actions could end in “grievous consequences” for the country.
The civilian-military battle revolves around an unsigned memo transmitted by a Pakistani American businessman, Mansoor Ijaz, to the Pentagon last spring. The memo asked for U.S. help in forestalling a possible military coup and establishing civilian control over the army, which has led Pakistan for half its existence and remains the country’s major power.
The army believes the memo came from the highest levels of government. The government has denied all knowledge of the document.
A military official with knowledge of the generals’ meeting Thursday said the memo was discussed, as was Gilani’s firing of the defense secretary, who was replaced by a close aide to the prime minister, Nargis Sethi. The official, who was not authorized to speak publicly, said the top brass was “highly displeased” by the firing and would find it “difficult” to work with Sethi.
Despite the theatrics, it is widely accepted that the army, led by Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, has no appetite for a coup. Nor does the public or Pakistan’s vibrant media, although the government is unpopular with both. The military, in fact, has strived to emphasize its preference for a solution sanctioned by the Supreme Court, an institution that some analysts say is on a warpath against the government.
“General Kayani and other generals believe that . . . the memo issue shall be decided by the Supreme Court,” the military official said. But, the official said, “in case the Supreme Court seeks the army’s assistance to fulfill any constitutional requirement, the call for that can be considered.”
In Washington, senior administration officials said a coup was unlikely and did not serve the interests of any of the players, but they acknowledged they had little insight into fast-moving internal events in Pakistan. Even if they did, any attempt to interfere could backfire, given the tension in U.S-Pakistani relations, said the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
A showdown could come Monday, when the Pakistani government is expected to explain its stance in an ongoing corruption case at the center of its acrimonious relations with the Supreme Court. Two days ago, the court berated the government and deemed Gilani “dishonest” for defying its orders to reopen old corruption cases against Zardari and other officials.
The court listed six wide-ranging options, including dismissing Gilani, pursuing contempt-of-court charges or letting voters decide. The government insists that Zardari, as president, is immune from prosecution.
The ruling party introduced a resolution in parliament Friday expressing support for the government, hoping for a symbolic boost for Zardari. The confidence measure will come up for vote Monday.
A judicial panel probing the memo’s origins also will resume its hearings Monday and might hear testimony from Ijaz, the Pakistani American businessman. Whether he will travel to Pakistan for the hearing remains unclear.
The rift between the government and the military comes against a backdrop of soured ties with the United States in the aftermath of a Nov. 26 border clash in which 24 Pakistani soldiers were killed in U.S. airstrikes. The covert drone campaign resumed only this week, with an alleged CIA strike killing six militants in the North Waziristan border region Thursday, the second such strike in three days.
In a small sign of progress, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton met Wednesday with Sherry Rehman, who arrived in Washington last week as Pakistan’s new ambassador and is expected to present her credentials to President Obama next week. Clinton noted Thursday that Rehman is “someone that I’ve known for some time.”
“My message to her was very straightforward,” Clinton told reporters. “We recognize there have been significant challenges in recent months, but we are steadfastly committed to this relationship and working together to make it productive.”
Staff writer Karen DeYoung in Washington contributed to this report.