THE US has indicated for the first time that it might be willing to back plans by elite echelons of the military in Islamabad to oust Pervez Musharraf from power, as the Pakistani President was beset by major new difficulties over his attempts to sack the country's chief justice.
Reports yesterday quoting highly placed US diplomatic and intelligence officials - previously rusted on to the view that General Musharraf was an indispensable Western ally in the battle against terrorism - outlined a succession plan to replace him.
US officials told The New York Times the plan would see the Vice-Chief of the Army, Ahsan Saleem Hyat, take over from General Musharraf as head of the military and former banker Mohammedmian Soomro installed as president, with General Hyat wielding most of the power.
The report adds another dimension to the range of challenges bearing down on the embattled military ruler following his weekend sacking of chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, whom he appointed just over a year ago.
Thousands of lawyers clashed with baton-wielding riot police yesterday during a nationwide day of action against the sacking of the top judge. About 3000 lawyers wearing smart black suits and chanting "Down with Musharraf" dismantled barriers in an attempt to stage a sit-in outside the Lahore High Court building.
More than 40 lawyers and 15 police were injured in the clashes. Police repeatedly baton-charged the demonstrators, some of them senior members of the bar, arresting 25 people.
In Islamabad, police barricaded the Supreme Court where the Supreme Judicial Council was meeting in camera to consider as-yet unspecified charges against the chief justice involving alleged misuse of his authority.
There was chaos and confusion as the council began its hearings last night. Having been held virtually under siege and incommunicado in his residence, the chief justice refused to get into a government car sent to convey him to the Supreme Court.
Instead, he stunned officials by starting to walk, surrounded by supporters, and told reporters he rejected any suggestion he had abused his office. Police soon intervened, however, and he was forced into a car and taken to another building before being transferred to the Supreme Court.
As courts across the country remained paralysed in protest, motives for the sacking emerged when it was disclosed that last month Justice Iftikhar said in a speech that General Musharraf could not continue as army chief beyond the expiry of his term as President later this year.
General Musharraf has a highly controversial plan that would have him elected to another five-year term as President by existing federal and provincial legislatures - before general elections are held.
But he also wants to continue as Army Chief of Staff, something that is bitterly opposed by political leaders as well as the international community. The plan would be challenged in the courts, and the chief justice's strong words on the issue may have forced the President to take pre-emptive action to remove him.
The bitter wrangling lends weight to those in the US diplomatic and intelligence community who believe it is time to consider the post-Musharraf era.
The US report suggests a growing disenchantment towards General Musharraf in Washington and indicates that the longstanding view that the alternative to his regime would be chaos and a takeover by extremist Islamic mullahs is no longer ascendant.
The US officials say hardline Islamists have usually not done well in elections in Pakistan and that if General Musharraf were removed, a doomsday scenario would not necessarily follow.
The report could be an attempt by Washington to pressure General Musharraf to take stronger action against militants in Pakistan's border areas near Afghanistan, where the Taliban and al-Qa'ida are operating. But it might also indicate the President's allies in Washington are about to pull the rug from under him.