EMBATTLED and besieged in a way unprecedented in his seven-year rule, Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf lashed out last night at "conspiracies" against him over his attempts to sack the country's top judge.
"If the people are with me, this conspiracy will not succeed," he declared.
But even as he spoke, new violence was erupting in Lahore, capital of the Punjab, with heavily armed riot police and protesting lawyers clashing for the seventh consecutive day.
And a leading Washington think tank said the "political fate" of the President, who came to power in a coup, could be decided at an imminent meeting of the army's top commanders.
The extent of the pressure on General Musharraf emerged with the revelation that among those protesting on the streets - shoulder-to-shoulder with activists from the liberal democratic parties - have been retired former senior military officers, including the legendary general Hamid Gul, who served for years as chief of the ISI spy agency, working closely with the Taliban.
General Gul faced down riot police when they tried to arrest him at a rally outside the Supreme Court in Islamabad protesting against attempts to dismiss Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry.
One jurist who was arrested and bundled into the back of a paddy wagon in Lahore was the widely respected former president and justice of the Supreme Court, Rafiq Tarar, who would normally stand aloof from street demonstrations.
As one commentator in Islamabad put it last night: "There's been nothing like this in the seven years since Musharraf grabbed power. Before he tried to sack the Chief Justice in the way he did, it would have been inconceivable that you would get such a cross-section of people demonstrating in this way.
"It's an indication of just how much trouble he is in."
Washington-based think tank Stratfor said yesterday there were rumours that some military commanders had written to General Musharraf expressing concern at the way the Chief Justice's suspension had been handled, and at the subsequent attack by riot police on the Islamabad offices of the Geo television station.
"Moreover, the political fate of the embattled President could be decided in a meeting of the corps commanders," it said.
The 10 corps commanders are the key figures in the country's power structure. Grouped with them are other top generals, including the head of the ISI.
Traditionally, when the army has been in power in Pakistan - most of the 60 years since independence - it is the corps commanders who call the shots.
But General Musharraf, a former commando, is tough, and all the signs were that he would not go down without a fight.
Addressing a public rally at Pak Pattan, in the Punjab, General Musharraf said he had taken action over the Chief Justice because he was required to do so after the Government, headed by Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz, made the recommendation to him. "I have no personal grudge with the Chief Justice," he said. "I have good family relations with him. Stop hatching conspiracy against me."
He claimed the attack by police on the Geo offices was "another conspiracy".
The brutal raid, in which journalists were beaten and equipment smashed, has been followed by an outpouring of apologies from General Musharraf down, most likely because Geo - headed by leading Pakistani journalist Hamid Mir, one of the few people ever to interview Osama bin Laden - has such a high profile in Pakistani society.
Officials have suspended 14 Punjabi riot squad police. But yesterday the same riot police stormed the historic High Court in Lahore, firing tear gas canisters and thrashing protesting lawyers with bamboo sticks known as lathis.
Lawyers were beaten, offices were trashed and computers and other equipment damaged. Again, the targets of the police brutality were not political activists, but respected professionals, including some of the best legal minds in the country.
Courts remain paralysed, with lawyers promising another mass demonstration when the Supreme Judicial Council meets again on Wednesday to resume hearing the misconduct charges.
Meanwhile, a Hindu will be sworn in as acting chief justice of the Islamic nation when he returns from holiday in India. Rana Bhagwandas is the most senior judge on the Pakistan Supreme Court bench.