ISLAMABAD  - Government looks dangerously isolated in a fresh confrontation with the military that analysts say could, at the very least, end in early elections.
The army erupted in fury Wednesday over criticism from Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani concerning a commission probing the "Memogate" scandal.
The memo has pitted the army against President Asif Ali Zardari's weak civilian administration, and the Supreme Court is now tasked with deciding if the government endorsed the note, and if so, if it can remain in power.
But an accusation by the prime minister in Chinese media this week that the chiefs of the army and main intelligence agency had failed to make their submissions to the court through government channels was bluntly denied by top brass and set the embattled civilian leaders further along a rocky path.
The army warned the comments could have "grievous consequences for the country", triggering the immediate sacking of the defence secretary - a top government bureaucrat considered too close to the generals.
"They are on a collision course. They have hardened their positions," political analyst Talat Masood said of the dangerous brinkmanship.
Speculation over the possibility of another coup filled social media sites on Wednesday, but analysts said it was unlikely, with early elections a more plausible outcome.
"Better sense will prevail. There will be no coup," said analyst Imtiaz Gul. "The centre of gravity basically is the Supreme Court right now and if anything at all (is carried out) against the government it will move from within the Supreme Court, it will not come from within the army."
"All the indicators are for early elections," he said. General elections had been expected in early 2013, but the predicted date has crept forward as the memo scandal has rumbled on and are now tipped for 2012, with some saying they could take place in the first half of the year.
Gilani sought to minimise confrontation in the immediate aftermath of Wednesday's row, but analysts believe the government could see its real test come in court.
Zardari has had difficult relations with the courts since he initially refused to reinstate the chief justice on coming to power in 2008 elections held a month after the assassination of his wife, former prime minister Benazir Bhutto.
That relationship has only worsened as his civilian administration has clung to power through repeated crises, with the judiciary bent on pursuing a host of long-running corruption cases against Zardari and other government figures.
The government is due to set out its position to the commission on Monday and its findings are expected to be presented by the end of the month.
"I have the feeling that the Supreme Court will be encouraged by the military's statement to get them (the government) out, and the army may support it," said Masood. "The government is isolated."
The curious memo, made public in October, was allegedly delivered to then chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen in May.
Allegedly written by one of President Asif Ali Zardari's aides, former envoy to US Husain Haqqani, the note asked for US intervention to stave off a feared military coup in May last year after US Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in May. The Supreme Court two weeks ago set up the judicial commission to investigate. Top intelligence chief Ahmed Shuja Pasha has called for a "forensic examination" of the memo.
Political analyst Hasan Askari warned that cooler heads must prevail to avert serious consequences in the country already battling militancy, insurgency and crippling resource shortages. "No single institution can manage the affairs (of Pakistan). The situation is so difficult in terrorism, with politics, which is unmanageable," he said. "The civilians cannot do without military support... and the military all by itself will not be able to handle the situation because of the complexity of the problems.