ISLAMABAD/DUBAI (Reuters) - Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari flew to Dubai on a scheduled one-day trip on Thursday, a member of the ruling party and sources said, while tensions grew over a memo seeking U.S. help in preventing a coup by Pakistan’s powerful military.
The crisis has raised fears for the stability of Pakistan, a vital but uneasy ally for the United States in its attempt to fight militancy and bring peace to neighboring Afghanistan.
Relations between Pakistan’s civilian government and the military have reached their lowest point since a coup in 1999, reducing the chances that the leadership can take on the country’s enormous social and economic challenges.
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 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.”
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The military set a harsher tone on Wednesday, warning 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 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.
Gilani engaged in what some analysts called political adventurism by sacking the defense secretary, a post seen usually as the military’s main advocate in the civilian bureaucracy.
Gulf-based Pakistani sources said Zardari was making the trip for a medical check-up. “This trip will be for a follow-up medical check-up and then he’ll be returning right away,” an associate of Zardari said.
However, a senior member of the ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) said Zardari had left Pakistan to attend a wedding in Dubai. Zardari maintains a home in Dubai which serves as a base for his children.
No official confirmation of either story was immediately available.
Whatever the case, the trip will fuel deep uncertainty about the unpopular president’s fate.
For most Pakistanis, the burning issues are crippling power cuts, the fragile economy and poverty, not political intrigue that have at times helped Pakistan earn the title of a failed state.
“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”.
It was referring to Gilani’s accusations against the military leadership.
Tension has risen between the civilian government and the military, which has ruled Pakistan for more than half its 64-year history, since a memo emerged last October purportedly seeking U.S. help to stave off a military coup.
Deepening the crisis, Gilani later sacked the country’s top military bureaucrat for unspecified “gross misconduct and illegal action”.
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.
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 the 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.
Additional reporting by Qasim Nauman in ISLAMABAD, Mubasher Bukhari in LAHORE, and Faisal Aziz in KARACHI; Writing by Paul Tait and Michael Georgy, Editing by Jonathan Thatcher