ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- The ruling coalition that just a week ago drove U.S. ally Pervez Musharraf from the presidency broke apart Monday, throwing Pakistan into political turmoil just as it faces an increasingly difficult fight against Islamic militants.
The collapse of the fragile alliance threw more power to Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of assassinated ex-leader Benazir Bhutto and a corruption-tainted former polo player who now becomes the front-runner to replace Musharraf.
Fulfilling a threat he made last week, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif pulled his party out of the coalition after a dispute with Zardari over whether to restore the chief justice of the Supreme Court, Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudry, who was ousted by Musharraf.
There was concern within Bhutto's party, the Pakistan People's Party, that such a restoration would lead to the prosecution of Musharraf -- and perhaps even Zardari -- and that a fight would weaken the government's ability to fight militants.
Sharif's withdrawal will cost Zardari and the PPP their majority in parliament. But Zardari is expected to rally support from allies and form a new government with the help of small parties.
And if he does that and wins the presidency Sept. 6 in a vote by lawmakers, as he is on course to do, Zardari would add to his powers and be in a position to create a more stable government. Sharif told reporters he would play a "constructive" role in the opposition but has already pledged to run a retired judge against Zardari next month.
The government needs a strengthened hand to tackle the growing Taliban militancy in Pakistan and end the instability that has plagued the country for the past year. The test will come when the new government takes on the militants and at the same time tries to find a solution to rising food and fuel prices that are slowing economic growth.
Zardari's party moved almost immediately to calm U.S. fears that Pakistan's new civilian rulers are paying too little attention to Islamic militants, banning the Pakistani Taliban group that claims to be behind a string of suicide bombings.
The United States has been carefully watching the alliance unravel since Musharraf, a former army chief and a stalwart supporter of the war on terror, who resigned after nine contentious years in power to avoid impeachment. Before her death, Bhutto had sought to convince the Americans that a civilian government run by her party would be able to more effectively wage a war on terror because it would have firm democratic underpinnings.
The ban came after a spectacular attack on one of the country's most sensitive military installations that left 67 dead. Anyone caught helping the group will face up to 10 years in prison. The Pakistan Taliban will also have its bank accounts and assets frozen.