President Gen. Pervez Musharraf on Friday told lawyers protesting his removal of Pakistan's top judge to stay out of politics, as critics and opponents seized on the growing judicial crisis to press for an end to his eight-year rule.
In a speech for Pakistan Day, marked with a parade showing off the nation's military might, the general also urged people to help defeat foreign militants, scores of whom have been killed fighting local tribesmen near the Afghan border this week.
Lawyers have observed a nationwide strike and held rallies across the country since March 9, when Musharraf suspended Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, Pakistan's chief justice, over allegations that he had abused his authority.
Hardline Islamist leaders opposed to Musharraf's close alliance with the United States quickly joined in the protests, some of which have turned into clashes with police. And the political temperature could rise further with Pakistan's main, secular opposition parties calling for countrywide demonstrations on Monday.
"We will try to make it a big show," said Farhatullah Babar, spokesman for former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party.
Musharraf, speaking on the anniversary of a 1940 resolution by Islamic leaders in British India that eventually led to the formation of Pakistan, asked the lawyers to let the legal proceedings against Chaudhry run their course.
"Don't make it a political issue. It is a legal issue, and it will be resolved only though legal and constitutional means," he told thousands of people in a sports stadium in the capital, Islamabad.
However, opponents say Musharraf, who serves as both army chief and president, is trying to oust a strong-willed judge ahead of parliamentary and presidential elections due later this year. Musharraf is expected to seek re-election for another five-year term from the outgoing legislature - a move likely to prompt opposition appeals to the Supreme Court against his continued rule.
Bhutto, who served twice as prime minister in the late 1980s and 1990s, is vowing to return from exile to campaign, despite threats that she could be arrested on long-standing corruption charges. She said in a Pakistan Day message, that Chaudhry's removal was an example of how Musharraf's "regime has continuously trampled rule of law and constitutionalism."
"Unless there is rule of law and everyone is equal before law, the future of our great country will be exposed to internal and external threats," she said in a statement on her party's Web site calling for the reinstatement of the judge, whose case is before a panel of his peers.
The escalating row could erode popular support for Musharraf in a country where many already resent his close alliance with the United States in its war on terrorism. He took power in a bloodless coup in 1999 and his political party won a general election in 2002.
Musharraf said ordinary Pakistanis should help him curb militancy.
"No individual or any force alone can fight them without people's support," he said. "I therefore appeal to the entire nation, to every person to rise and save this nation and the country from the danger of extremism and terrorism."
The government has seized on ongoing fighting between Pakistani tribesmen and foreign militants linked to al-Qaida near the Afghan frontier as a sign that Musharraf's appeal is being heard.
The fierce battles which broke out Monday and continued through Friday have left up to 160 people dead, including about 130 Uzbek and Chechen fighters and between 25 and 30 tribesmen, said Ali Mohammed Jan Aurakzai, the governor of North West Frontier Province, reports AP.
The clashes have taken place in South Waziristan, a semiautonomous tribal region used as a sanctuary by Taliban militants operating in neighboring Afghanistan where U.S. officials worry that al-Qaida also is trying to regroup.