ISLAMABAD, Pakistan —A move by the civilian leadership on Thursday to impeach President Pervez Musharraf left Pakistan on the brink of a political crisis that threatened to paralyze the government at a critical moment when the United States is demanding greater action against militants based in this country.
The governing coalition set no formal deadline for the start of impeachment proceedings against Mr. Musharraf, a favored American ally, leaving open the possibility of a protracted and debilitating political fight that could take months of haggling to secure the parliamentary votes needed for impeachment.
It also raised the threat that Mr. Musharraf would try to dissolve Parliament or that he would look to the army for protection, though many analysts said the military was unlikely to intervene. “The army preference is not to get involved and for the constitutional process to be followed so there is the least amount of disruption to the system,” said Shuja Nawaz, the author of “Crossed Swords” (Oxford University Press), a book on the Pakistani military. “They would not want to be drawn into it.”
The announcement that the civilian leaders would seek impeachment, made at a news conference here, was the culmination of months of wrenching political changes after the assassination of the opposition leader Benazir Bhutto in December and the decisive victory of her party in elections in February. Since then, the leaders of the country’s two major parties, Asif Ali Zardari and Nawaz Sharif, have forged a tense governing coalition that has teetered on collapse.
Mr. Zardari, the head of the Pakistan Peoples Party, and Mr. Sharif, the leader of the Pakistan Muslim League-N, have barely been on speaking terms. For the last several days, they had been closeted in meetings on how to keep their coalition together.
Mr. Sharif, who was ousted as prime minister by Mr. Musharraf in a 1999 coup, has pushed Mr. Zardari to join impeachment proceedings against the president. Mr. Zardari had resisted. But this week he apparently decided that the one way to keep the coalition functioning was to undertake a frontal attack on Mr. Musharraf, who is immensely unpopular here after having led Pakistan as the head of the army for eight years, until the end of 2007.
On Thursday, the two coalition leaders issued a joint communiqué saying that their government would “immediately initiate impeachment proceedings” and that it would “present a charge sheet against General Musharraf.” Mr. Musharraf was described by his allies as determined to fight back, and met all day on Thursday with his political backers and his constitutional lawyer, Syed Sharifuddin Pirzada. In an indication of the gravity of his situation, the president called off his trip to attend the opening of the Olympic Games.
Many Pakistani officials said they believed that Mr. Musharraf would seek support from the Bush administration. It has endowed Pakistan with more than $12 billion of mostly military aid since 9/11 for its cooperation in combating the insurgency of the Taliban and Al Qaeda, which is washing over the border into Afghanistan and attacking American troops there.
The effectiveness of that cooperation has been called into question, most recently by American officials who presented Pakistan with evidence that its spy agency played a part in the bombing of the Indian Embassy in Afghanistan in July.
But Mr. Musharraf, a dominant, outspoken and sometimes cavalier figure, has enjoyed a personal rapport with Mr. Bush, who has leaned on the president as his principal support here.
Publicly, the State Department called the bid to impeach Mr. Musharraf an “internal” Pakistani matter. “Our expectation is that any action will be consistent with the rule of law and the Pakistani Constitution,” said Gonzalo Gallegos, a State Department spokesman. But privately, one administration official said that Mr. Musharraf’s influence within Pakistan had all but evaporated since he removed his army uniform at the end of last year and since the sweeping defeat of his party in elections this year.
While Mr. Bush has kept up his relations with Mr. Musharraf — including regular telephone conversations — the administration has also been trying to build its relations with the new Pakistani government.
That effort, the administration official said, has yet to bear much fruit. The official requested anonymity because he did not want to be seen commenting publicly on internal Pakistani affairs.
Looking for new political levers, a succession of the administration’s most senior military and intelligence officials have visited Pakistan in recent months, but they have focused their attention on Mr. Musharraf’s successor as army chief of staff, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani.
General Kayani has pledged to keep the army out of politics — a rare promise in Pakistan — and it seemed doubtful that the army would come to the rescue of a diminished Mr. Musharraf, said Mr. Nawaz, the author, who is based in Washington but is currently visiting Pakistan, where he met with senior military officers.
The army under General Kayani wanted to protect its institutional interests, not one personality, he said.
Others agreed. As president, Mr. Musharraf has the power under the Constitution to dismiss the Parliament, but in practice he would have to have the acquiescence of the military, said Senator Tariq Azim Khan, a former minister of information in the Musharraf government. That support would probably not be offered, he said.
After the news conference of the two civilian leaders, Ahsan Iqbal, the spokesman for Mr. Sharif, said the impeachment proceedings would be completed “in the next couple of weeks.” But there was wide skepticism that things would proceed so neatly.
A constitutional lawyer, Babar Sattar, who writes frequently about the need for democracy in Pakistan, said that Mr. Zardari had already broken a pledge to restore judges dismissed by Mr. Musharraf. There was little reason to believe he would push ahead with the impeachment. “Why should we believe him this time?” Mr. Sattar asked.
Impeachment proceedings were indeed uncharted waters: no Pakistani president has been impeached, politicians said. But there is a clear process laid out in the Constitution, lawyers said, and it involves two steps.
First, the coalition would need at least half the members of either the upper or lower house of Parliament to pass an impeachment resolution, they said.
Then, two-thirds of both houses of Parliament, sitting together, would have to vote actually to remove Mr. Musharraf from office on the basis of whatever charges are presented against him.
Coalition officials said they were sure they had 305 votes, 10 more than the 295 required. But others said the 10-vote margin could probably be reduced by a determined Mr. Musharraf. “That’s not a very comfortable majority,” Mr. Sattar said.
The impeachment move comes amid growing public concern that the four-month-old government has failed to deal with the problems facing the country, including an economic crisis and the expanding Taliban insurgency.
While an apparent attempt by the coalition to reinvigorate and bolster itself, the move could just as easily embroil and distract it and bleed the government of energy, some warned.
A former member of Parliament, Ishaq Khan Khakwani, who resigned from the Musharraf cabinet last year, suggested that the coalition government was unleashing a process that could cause significant turmoil.
“An elected government was meant to bring stability; unfortunately it is destabilizing Pakistan,” Mr. Khakwani said.
Still, a poll by the International Republican Institute in June showed that 85 percent of Pakistanis believed that the president should resign.
While they have yet to be announced, the charges against the president are likely to center on the legality of his election to his current five-year term and his emergency decree last fall.
Mr. Musharraf argues that he was elected democratically last October, according to the politicians who support him. But the ruling coalition government disputes the legality of that vote, which was held by the outgoing Parliament and provincial assemblies dominated by the president’s supporters. Moreover, the coalition says that Mr. Musharraf’s emergency decree last November was unconstitutional, as was his dismissal of nearly 60 judges, including the chief justice of the Supreme Court.
One of the politicians who is part of the bloc in Parliament that seemed up for grabs by both sides said in a telephone interview on Thursday that he had instructed his colleagues to be in favor of impeachment.
The politician, Munir Khan Orakzai, who represents the Kurram district in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas where the Taliban insurgency has gathered strength, said Mr. Musharraf was to blame for the problems. “He has made things worse for us,” Mr. Orakzai said.
Another member of the national assembly from the tribal areas, Kamran Khan Wazir from North Waziristan, said Mr. Musharraf should not wait for impeachment. He should resign first, he said.
Helene Cooper contributed reporting from Washington.