After months of internal bickering, Pakistan's governing coalition announced Thursday it will seek to impeach President Pervez Musharraf, cranking up pressure on the U.S.-backed former general to resign.
With his popularity at rock bottom and civilian political forces arrayed against him, the outlook is gloomy for the leader who pushed Pakistan into the U.S.-led war on extremist groups after the Sept. 11 attack on America.
But Musharraf, who is still seen as close to the armed forces he once commanded, appears in no mood to give up without a fight eight years after rising to power in a military coup.
Analysts said the coalition, which swept to power in February elections but has struggled with the pressing economic and security problems they inherited, is not assured of victory.
Stripping Musharraf of the presidency will require a two-thirds majority of lawmakers voting in a joint session of both houses of Parliament.
Parties in the coalition control 236 of the National Assembly's 339 seats and as many as 51 of the Senate's 100 seats. That is at least six seats short, so the coalition will need support from some of the 29 independent lawmakers or defectors from pro-Musharraf parties.
"It won't be smooth-sailing," said political analyst Mehdi Hasan.
Asif Ali Zardari, leader of the coalition's biggest party, expressed confidence it will succeed. He called the move to seek impeachment "good news for democracy" in Pakistan.
The decision followed two days of marathon negotiations between Zardari and Nawaz Sharif, who was ousted as prime minister in Musharraf's 1999 coup and now leads the second-largest party in the coalition.
Their alliance _ forged after the February election victory _ has been at risk of collapse over differences over how to restore judges fired by Musharraf last year and whether to seek his ouster.
While fears of the coalition splitting up have eased, the impeachment drive will heighten political tensions and set up a confrontation with Musharraf that many analysts thought Zardari wanted to avoid. Musharraf immediately canceled a planned trip to Beijing for the Olympics' opening ceremony.
Reading out a joint statement alongside Sharif, Zardari proclaimed it was "imperative" for them to move for Musharraf's impeachment.
He said the president's policies the past eight years "have brought Pakistan to a critical economic impasse" and claimed Musharraf "conspired" against Pakistan's democratic transition.
Zardari said Musharraf had given a "clear commitment" to resign if his party lost in the February elections. He also said the president failed to honor a pledge made by his lawyer to the Supreme Court to seek a vote of confidence from the new Parliament.
Sharif said the impeachment process would start "in the next few days."
Provincial assemblies will first be called on to demand that Musharraf face a vote of confidence from lawmakers.
"If the president does not get the vote of confidence, then immediately with it, impeachment proceedings will start," said Zardari's party spokesman, Fahartullah Babar.
Musharraf supporters accused the coalition of trying to deflect attention from its failure to address Pakistan's mounting economic problems and calm militant violence in the restless tribal areas along the border with Afghanistan.
Inflation in Pakistan is running above 20 percent, and the country suffers hours of power outages daily. Food prices have soared.
Worries over Islamic extremism are deepening _ a concern that led the State Department on Thursday to renew its warning to U.S. citizens to avoid nonessential travel to Pakistan because of terrorist activity.
"These impeachment proceedings will only complicate matters and bring a new dimension to our problems, which is the last thing we need at the moment," said Tariq Azeem, a spokesman for the main pro-Musharraf party.
Pakistan is still reeling from a turbulent 2007.
After months of mounting opposition to continued military rule, Musharraf imposed emergency rule in November seeking to cling to power. Weeks later, Pakistan's most famous politician, two-time prime minister Benazir Bhutto, was killed by a suicide attack blamed on a Taliban militant leader.
Under pressure at home and abroad to restore democracy, Musharraf ceded control of the army before lifting emergency rule in December, losing the main source of his power. Since the new civilian administration took office, he has been sidelined from the workings of government.
While Western officials privately express disappointment with the performance of the new government _ and its strategy of seeking peace with Taliban militants _ there is also recognition that the once-dominant Musharraf has become a divisive figure in Pakistan.
The Bush administration offered a measured response to the coalition's impeachment plan.
State Department spokesman Gonzalo Gallegos said the U.S. wanted any action to be consistent with Pakistan's constitution and the rule of law. "It is the responsibility of Pakistanis' leaders to decide on a way forward to succeed as a modern and democratic country," he said.
Patrick Cronin, director of the Institute for National Strategic Studies at the National Defense University in Washington, said Western governments probably would quietly caution the coalition not to act rashly against Musharraf, but ultimately would see his removal as a domestic issue.
"Officials might be quietly encouraging them to think through the implications of this and not act in a convulsive and emotional way, but at the end of the day, nobody is surprised," he said.
Still, impeachment proceedings against a president are a voyage into the unknown for Pakistan, which has been ruled by its military for more than half its 61-year history. Its politics are confrontational and many of its leaders have suffered a violent end.
Bhutto died in a suicide bombing on the campaign trail. Her father, ex-premier Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, perhaps Pakistan's most accomplished politician, was hanged in 1979 on charges widely seen as politically motivated. His rival, dictator Zia ul-Haq, died in an air crash in 1988.
Hamid Nasir Chatta, a lawmaker who met with Musharraf on Wednesday, said the president would not resign and would fight impeachment both "legally and politically."
"There is no chance of his quitting," Chatta said.
While Musharraf has little support among the public or political parties, he still retains an ace up his sleeve: The president has the constitutional power to dissolve Parliament.
Yet doing so would be hugely controversial, and would require the backing of a military trying to distance itself from politics. The generals have lost public support because of their association with Musharraf and their U.S.-backed military operations against Islamic militants.
Associated Press writers Sadaqat Jan and Zarar Khan contributed to this report.