ISLAMABAD — Pakistan’s Supreme Court ordered the arrest of Prime Minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf in a corruption case Tuesday, in a drastic intensification of hostilities between the country’s embattled government and its opponents.
The court order came as an enigmatic preacher turned politician, Tahir-ul-Qadri, addressed thousands of supporters outside Parliament and
repeated calls for the government’s ouster. In earlier speeches, he said a caretaker administration led by technocrats should take its place.
The confluence of the two events stoked growing speculation that Pakistan’s powerful military was quietly supporting moves that would delay general elections that are due to take place this spring, most likely through the imposition of a military-backed caretaker administration.
“Victory, victory, victory. By the grace of God,’’ said Qadri at the conclusion of a speech to his supporters, who have vowed not to leave a public square outside Parliament until their demands are satisfied.
It was not certain that the events were linked.
Some analysts said that in ordering the prime minister’s arrest, the court, which is led by the independent-minded Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, was simply taking advantage of antigovernment sentiment generated by Qadri to pursue its longstanding campaign against President Asif Ali Zardari.
Whatever its motivations, the court’s actions added to the chaos in Pakistan, a country whose nuclear arsenal and strategic interests in next-door Afghanistan has made it a nexus of intrigue in Asia.
In the order issued Tuesday, the Supreme Court ordered the National Accountability Bureau, a government body that investigates graft, to arrest Ashraf and 15 other senior current or former officials, including a former finance minister and a former finance secretary.
The case relates to longstanding accusations that Ashraf took millions of dollars in kickbacks as part of a deal to build two electricity plants while serving as minister for water and power between March 2008 and February 2011.
A court prosecution has been ongoing for more than a year, so it was the timing of the arrest order that raised eyebrows.
It started in December 2011 when two senior opposition figures filed a petition against Ashraf in the supreme court; four months later the court ruled that the plants were illegal, ordered their closure, and instituted proceedings against Ashraf.
The case has particular political resonance because Pakistan’s energy crisis, which has seen severe electricity rationing across the country, is the source of some of the main complaints against the government.
The information minister, Qamar Zaman Kaira, said the government had not received any official notification of the order to arrest Ashraf.
Fawad Chaudhry, a senior adviser to the prime minister, said any such order would be ‘‘illegal and unconstitutional.’’
“Under the law, the court cannot arrest him,’’ he said.
Zardari called a meeting of senior advisers at his Karachi residence to discuss the crisis late Tuesday, Fawad Chaudhry added.
Ashraf’s ouster would not necessarily collapse the government, as he could be replaced with another candidate, and the court order could simply be the latest salvo in a long-running conflict between Zardari and the court.
Last June, the chief justice, Iftikhar Chaudhary, forced the resignation of Ashraf’s predecessor as prime minister, Yousuf Raza Gilani, in another corruption case.
Whether there was a link between the court and Qadri’s march on Islamabad — billed by the preacher as a ‘‘million man march’’ but in reality far smaller — was the subject of rampant public speculation.
Qadri stormed onto the political scene in Pakistan after returning from a seven-year stint in Canada, where he also holds citizenship, armed with considerable financing that he has used for an intensive television advertising campaign and large rallies.
In his speech Tuesday, which was peppered with emotional Islamic references, he demanded the immediate resignation of the government and painted the country’s elected politicians as ‘‘criminals’’ who deserved to be prosecuted for corruption.