ISLAMABAD: Pakistan's prime minister appealed for support Friday from the country's parliament in a standoff between his beleaguered government and the armed forces, saying lawmakers had to choose between "democracy and dictatorship."
Tensions between Pakistan's army and government have soared in recent days over a memo sent to Washington, raising fears that the army might stage a coup or support possible moves by the Supreme Court to oust the government.
The party of Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani and President Asif Ali Zardari is the largest in the ruling coalition.
Opposition parties also have spoken out against any military takeover, but they would likely support early elections as a way out of the crisis. Gilani hinted the government was considering early polls, saying "we will go to the masses if the situation worsens."
He said parliament must choose between "democracy or dictatorship."
Elections are due in around one year's time, but Zardari aides have said the government will not step down before Senate polls scheduled for March. That vote is carried out by lawmakers and is expected to give Zardari's Pakistan People's Party a majority in the upper house, giving it significant political power for the next six years.
The army has staged four coups and considers itself the true custodian of the country's interests.
The military and the government have been locked in a standoff for months, but a scandal that erupted late last year after an unsigned memo was sent to Washington asking for its help in heading off a supposed coup has caused tensions to spike.
Earlier Friday, two officials — one in Britain, the other in Pakistan — said Gilani had called the top British diplomat in the country this week expressing fears that the Pakistani army might be about to stage a coup. However, the British Foreign Office and Gilani's office denied any such phone call had been made.
The prime minister also asked High Commissioner Adam Thomson for Britain to support his embattled government, according to the officials, who didn't give their names because of the sensitivity of the issue.
The British Foreign Office said in a statement Friday there was "no phone call on this matter." The prime minister's office also said Gilani had "not spoken to the British High Commissioner in this regard."
The Pakistani government is unlikely to want to publicly admit to asking Britain for help because it would be taken as a sign that it is worried about its position.
Analysts say army chief Gen. Ashfaq Pervez Kayani has little appetite for a coup, but they say the generals may be happy to allow the Supreme Court to dismiss the government by "constitutional means."
A Supreme Court commission is probing the memo affair, which in theory could lead to Zardari's ouster.
The court has also ordered the government to open corruption investigations into Zardari dating back years. The government has refused. Earlier this week, the court said it could dismiss Zardari and Gilani over the case. Judges are convening Monday for what could be a decisive session.
Lawmakers loyal to the government also introduced a resolution in parliament expressing support for Gilani's Cabinet, a move that would give it a symbolic boost. The resolution, which will be put to a vote on Monday, pledges "full confidence and trust" in the political leadership and says all state institutions must act within limits imposed by the constitution — an apparent rebuke to the military for crossing into politics.
Zardari traveled last month to Dubai for medical reasons, triggering widely reported rumors he was on the verge of resigning. On Thursday he traveled to the same city, citing 'personal reasons', returning early Friday, said spokesman Farhatullah Babar.
Asked whether Zardari was concerned about his political future, Babar said, "Absolutely not. Why should he be? He is comfortable and perfectly all right."
The nuclear-armed country is facing a host of problems, among them near economic collapse and a virulent Al Qaeda- and Taliban-led insurgency. The fight against the militant has been complicated by allegations that the country's main Inter-Services Intelligence is supporting some of the insurgents.
On Friday, a government-appointed commission investigating the unsolved murder of a journalist last year said that the ISI needed to be more "law-abiding." The report did not find enough evidence to name any perpetrators in the death of Saleem Shahzad, who was killed after he told friends he had been threatened by the ISI.
The commission called on the ISI to be made more accountable to the government through internal reviews and oversight by parliament. It said its interactions with reporters should be closely monitored.
Also Friday, militants assaulted a police station in the northwestern city of Peshawar, shooting dead three officers and wounding nine others, said police officer Saeed Khan.
The Pakistani Taliban have carried out hundreds of attacks on the country's army and other security forces since 2007. The attack came a day after militants armed with guns and grenades killed four Pakistani soldiers in an ambush in the South Waziristan tribal area.