ISLAMABAD — Pakistan's top court said Tuesday it could dismiss the prime minister unless he begins corruption proceedings against the president, opening another front against a government already under pressure from the army.
The political turmoil comes as the nuclear-armed country is struggling with urgent economic and security challenges and a deteriorating relationship with the United States, which believes Islamabad's help will be crucial in ending the war in Afghanistan.
Hours before the Supreme Court ruling, Islamist militants bombed a tribal militia opposed to the insurgency in its heartland close to the Afghan border, killing 30 people and proving the resilience of extremists despite repeated army offensives and U.S. missile strikes since 2008.
The conflict with the court has been brewing since 2009, when judges struck down an amnesty protecting President Asif Ali Zardari and hundreds of other politicians from prosecution on graft and other charges and ordered cases against them reopened.
The government has dragged its feet on doing this, arguing that the president has immunity from prosecution.
Some independent commentators say the Supreme Court, which has on three occasions in the past sanctioned military coups, is hostile to the current administration and is working with the army to oust it through constitutional means.
They say political pressure is growing to topple the government before Senate elections scheduled for March, which are expected to give Zardari's party a majority in the upper house that will give him significant political power for the next six years, regardless of whether the party performs badly in general elections next year or sooner.
A five-judge panel accused the government of "willful disobedience" and said "the buck stops" at the office of Prime Minister Yousuf Reza Gilani, whom it called "dishonest." The ruling warned that the court could declare him unfit to hold office and dismiss him if he does not implement its earlier verdicts.
It ordered the attorney general to appear before the court next week to explain the government's foot dragging.
Government lawmaker Babar Awan dismissed the ruling but didn't say what the government's strategy would be.
It may decide to cooperate on a limited scale with the court, seeking to drag out the affair until after the Senate elections or beyond.
It is also unclear whether the court has the appetite to dismiss a democratically elected government, despite its rhetoric.
"Only the people of Pakistan have the right to decide who is popular and who is unpopular in the country, and who is honest and who is dishonest," Awan said soon after it was announced.
Zardari is a major beneficiary of the graft amnesty, which was part of a broader U.S.-backed deal to allow his wife, the late Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, and her allies to return to Pakistan in 2007 and take part in elections safe from prosecution on charges they said were politically motivated.
The Supreme Court has zeroed in on one case taken up by the Swiss government against Zardari but halted in 2008 under the amnesty. Zardari and Bhutto were found guilty in absentia in a Geneva court in 2003 of laundering millions of Swiss francs. They were handed six-month sentences and fined. Both punishments were automatically suspended when they appealed.
The court has ordered the government to contact Swiss authorities to reopen the case. Swiss prosecutors have told reporters that this is impossible because Zardari has immunity.
Zardari also has been threatened by another scandal surrounding a memo sent to Washington last year seeking its help in reining in the Pakistani army. The Supreme Court is investigating that note, which some in the right-wing, pro-army media have dubbed "treasonous."
Pakistan's envoy to Washington, Husain Haqqani, was alleged to have masterminded the memo. He resigned late last year, seeking to limit its fallout. If the court states Zardari knew about the memo, it could open up another avenue for his foes to challenge his rule.
The bomb in the northwest hit vehicles being used by an anti-Taliban militia in the Khyber region, said local security officer Khan Dad Khan. It killed 30 people and wounded 51, said local government official Jamil Khan.
The army has supported the formation of anti-Taliban militias in northwest Pakistan, but the insurgents have ruthlessly attacked the groups over the last two years. Many of the country's bloodiest bombings have targeted militia members or their families.
Shopkeeper Sharif Gul said the blast ignited a huge fire.
"People were burning," he said at a hospital in Peshawar, the main town in the northwest. "There was nothing to put out the fire."
Islamist militants with links to al-Qaida have carried out hundreds of bombings in Pakistan since 2007, killing many hundreds of soldiers, police, government officials and civilians.
The Pakistani army has carried out offensives against the militants in their strongholds in tribally administered regions like Khyber, but the insurgents have proven to be a resilient foe. There have been conflicting reports of peace talks between some insurgent factions and the government in recent months.
The last major bombing happened in September close to the Swat Valley, when a suicide bomber hit a funeral of a tribal elder opposed to the Taliban. The attack killed 31 people.
Associated Press writers Riaz Khan in Peshawar and Zarar Khan in Islamabad contributed to this report.