ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani fired his defense secretary, a retired general and confidant of Pakistan’s army chief, on Wednesday as the civilian government appeared headed for a collision with the country’s powerful military leadership.
Mr. Gilani accused the dismissed secretary of defense, Naeem Khalid Lodhi, a former general and corps commander, of “gross misconduct and illegal action” and of “creating misunderstanding between the state institutions.” He replaced Mr. Lodhi with a civilian aide, Nargis Sethi.
Military officials warned on Wednesday evening that the army would be likely to refuse to work with Ms. Sethi, signaling the possibility of a serious rupture between the army and the civilian government. “The army will not react violently, but it will not cooperate with the new secretary of defense,” said a military officer who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the situation.
Tensions between the government of President Asif Ali Zardari and the army leadership have grown worse since the publication of a controversial memo purportedly drafted by the government shortly after an American raid last year killed Osama bin Laden. The memo appeared to solicit help in stopping a possible coup by the humiliated Pakistani military.
Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, the army chief, called an emergency meeting of his top commanders for Thursday.
Ordinarily, the defense secretary here is appointed with the consent of the army chief and acts as a bridge between the government and the military. The role is more powerful than that of the defense minister, a position filled by a politician from the governing party.
The military has warned the prime minister that his recent statements against General Kayani would have “serious ramifications with potentially grievous consequences for the country.” Mr. Gilani had accused General Kayani and Lt. Gen. Ahmad Shuja Pasha, the director general of Pakistan’s intelligence service, of acting as a “state within a state” and reminded them that they were accountable to the Parliament. Those statements were seen as suggesting that they could be removed from power.
The defense secretary’s signature is required for any appointment, or termination, of a member of the military leadership. By installing a defense secretary of his own choice, Mr. Gilani appeared to be seeking greater leverage for his government in dealing with the military.
Speculation about the government’s intentions to dismiss the two commanders was fueled by news reports in the stridently anti-American press in Pakistan, where many people view the United States as an arrogant adversary instead of an ally. That view has spread in the months since the Bin Laden raid last May and the deaths of 26 Pakistani soldiers in an American airstrike near the border with Afghanistan in November.
Pakistani analysts said the firing of Mr. Lodhi might signal that the festering conflict between the army and the government was reaching a critical stage.
“It is a desperate measure,” said Ikram Sehgal, a defense analyst and a former army officer. “They want the army to react and to make a coup.”
Hasan-Askari Rizvi, a military and political analyst, said the firing would only exacerbate the situation for the civilian government. “If the prime minister now tries to fire the army chief, it will have very dangerous consequences,” Mr. Rizvi said.
Mr. Lodhi, who retired from the army last March and became defense secretary in November, became embroiled in a controversy last month after he submitted a statement in the Supreme Court on behalf of the Defense Ministry, saying that the civilian government had no operational control over the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, Pakistan’s powerful spy agency. Saying that Mr. Lodhi had overstepping his authority, Mr. Gilani objected to the blunt statement, a public acknowledgment that while the intelligence services are technically answerable to the prime minister, they are widely perceived to act independently of civilian control.
A military official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly said that the relationship between Mr. Lodhi and Mr. Gilani broke down after the prime minister’s staff pressed Mr. Lodhi to contradict statements about the controversial memo by the army and intelligence chiefs, Generals Kayani and Pasha. The two told the Supreme Court last month that the memo — said to have been orchestrated by a former ambassador to the United States, Husain Haqqani — was authentic, and pointed to a conspiracy against the military. The government and Mr. Haqqani have said that they had nothing to do with the memo, which came to light in October.
“The government had prepared a draft that stated that the Ministry of Defense does not agree with General Kayani and Genera Pasha’s opinions about the veracity of the memo,” said the military official, who was present during the discussions. “General Lodhi refused to sign the document, saying those were not his words.”
J. David Goodman contributed reporting from New York.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: January 11, 2012
An earlier version of this article referred imprecisely the writing of a memo, which solicited help in stopping a possible coup in Pakistan. The facts of its creation are in dispute, with some accusing the former Pakistani ambassador to the United States, Husain Haqqani, of orchestrating the controversial memo, a charge he has denied. Also, a summary for this story on the global edition home page incorrectly stated that Mr. Gilani had fired General Kayani. In fact, as the article correctly stated, Mr. Gilani fired his secretary of defense, Naeem Khalid Lodhi.