BY MUNIR AHMED AND CHRIS BRUMMITT

The Associated Press

ISLAMABAD -- A Pakistani judge issued an arrest warrant yesterday for the ruling party's candidate for prime minister over allegations he illegally imported drugs, injecting fresh uncertainty into efforts to replace the previous premier who was ousted by the Supreme Court.

The warrant was announced after the Pakistan People's Party nominated Makhdoom Shahabuddin, raising suspicion it was politically motivated and aimed at blocking the president's choice to replace Yousuf Raza Gilani. The anti-narcotic force is run by the army, another power center in Pakistan's chaotic polity and one that has at times allied with the judiciary to target elected governments.

Gilani was dismissed Tuesday because he refused to begin a corruption case against President Asif Ali Zardari, the head of the PPP.

The order, leaving the country without a cabinet, was an escalation of a power struggle between the government and activist judges, who critics say are unfairly prioritizing cases against the government. The arrest warrant is a sign that tensions may continue, even as Pakistan's relations with the United States are facing major strains.

Shahabuddin, 65, the outgoing textile minister and a veteran PPP lawmaker, was Zardari's first choice for prime minister. He appeared defiant as he filed nomination papers ahead of a scheduled vote in the parliament today. But by last evening, two other People's Party stalwarts were being mentioned as likely replacement.

The PPP has a majority in parliament, and together with its coalition partners should have the numbers to get their choice elected. General elections are scheduled for March next year, but most assume the political upheaval will ensure they will be brought forward to the fall.

The arrest warrant was issued by an anti-narcotics court judge in the northern city of Rawalpindi, according to an officer at the anti-narcotics force and a law ministry official.

Shahabuddin was accused over his role in a scandal about the import of a drug that can be used to make methamphetamine, said the officials. He was health minister at the time.

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