Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani, in an interview broadcast on Saturday, said corruption charges against Pakistan's president were politically motivated and that the president had immunity as head of state.

In the wide-ranging interview with Al Jazeera television, he also criticised U.S. drone attacks on militants near the Afghan border as counterproductive and said Pakistan never authorised them.

Pakistan, he said, backed any Afghan-led peace plan to establish peace in the neighbouring country and in no way supported Taliban insurgents.

Gilani's statements were aired on the eve of a hearing at which the premier faces indictment for contempt of court over his refusal to request the reopening of corruption cases against

President Asif Ali Zardari, co-chairman of the premier's Pakistan People's Party (PPP).

There had been a lot of cases against him, and they were all politically motivated, Gilani said, referring to Zardari.

He has got immunity. And he has not got immunity only in Pakistan, he has transnational immunity, even all over the world.

Asked if he would rather resign for the sake of the president, Gilani said if convicted of contempt, he would automatically lose office, so there was no need for him to quit.

There's no need to step down, he said. If I'm convicted, then I'm not supposed to be a member of the parliament.

Monday's expected indictment of Gilani pushes Pakistan's political crisis into a new phase. It is unlikely to lead to the fall of the government, but will continue to paralyse the country and further empower its military, analysts say.

The Court is neither likely to trigger a collapse of the PPP government nor lead to military intervention, wrote Shamila Chaudhary in an analysis for Eurasia Group. But the judiciary will remain a critical factor in Pakistani politics for the duration of the election cycle that ends in February 2013.

LENGTHY LEGAL PROCESS

The civilian-judicial confrontation stems from thousands of old corruption cases thrown out in 2007 by an amnesty law passed under former military president Pervez Musharraf.

Zardari is its most prominent beneficiary and the main target of the court, which voided the law in 2009 and ordered the re-opening of cases accusing the president of money laundering using Swiss bank accounts.

Gilani and his advisers have refused to ask the Swiss to reopen the cases. The prime minister had appealed the court's decision to charge him with contempt, but on Friday that appeal was dismissed, paving the way for the indictment.

There's no way Zardari will allow his party to write a letter that will incriminate him in any significant way, said Najim Sethi, editor of the weekly Friday Times. And that's exactly what the Supreme Court wants.

The continued defiance could benefit the PPP ahead of a widely expected lower-house election in October, said Salman Raja, a Supreme Court lawyer and constitutional expert.

Raja said any proceedings against Gilani would likely take until July and result in a short jail sentence -- no longer than a week or 10 days.

The party could then campaign on the notion of a biased court doing the work of the military and persecuting an elected prime minister, and that rhetoric gets reemphasized.

PYRRHIC VICTORY

But a PPP win could be a Pyrrhic victory. Infighting and confrontations with the military have consumed the nuclear-armed country in recent years, preventing it from addressing poverty and other economic ills or containing a rampaging insurgency that is endangering the U.S.-led war effort in Afghanistan.

It's a creeping kind of a coup, Raja said. Effectively they've crippled the government.

Tensions between the military and the civilian government reached a fever pitch in December and January over a memo asking for U.S. help against a feared military coup in the aftermath of the May 2 killing of Osama bin Laden by American special forces in a Pakistani town.

Those tensions have since subsided and a coup looks unlikely now. In the interview, Gilani said he had good relations with the military at the moment.

But continued brinkmanship with the court, Sethi said, served the army's purpose of staying in power behind the scenes.

In the interview, Gilani said authorities in Islamabad gave no approval for U.S. drone strikes.

I want to inform you that we did not allow or give permission to fly drones from Pakistan, he said.

Number two, drones are counterproductive. And we had discussed thoroughly with the U.S. administration that we at times make a lot of efforts to very successfully isolate militants from the local tribes.

Asked about the future of Afghanistan, Gilani said Pakistan would support any Afghan-led peace initiative and did not back the Afghan Taliban to take over.

We are not supporting them. It's not our job. Why should we support them?

(Editing by Ron Popeski)