The assassination of the leader of a renegade Pakistani Taliban faction by one of his own men Tuesday underscores a growing rift in the ranks of the militant group as it braces for an impending army assault in the volatile northwest.
Qari Zainuddin's killing sets back government hopes of exploiting these internal divisions in the South Waziristan tribal region, where the army has been pounding strongholds of Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud in apparent preparation for a major, U.S.-backed offensive.
Suspected U.S. missiles also hammered the same areas Tuesday, striking a purported Taliban training center and later a funeral procession for some of those killed in the first missile attack. Up to 40 people died — including Sangeen Khan, a top aide to Mehsud — and 60 more were wounded, said two intelligence officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because it would compromise their jobs.
Mehsud has humbled the Pakistani army in past battles and has been closing ranks this year by forging fresh alliances with other powerful Taliban leaders and killing off opponents. Although Zainuddin was never seen as a serious challenger to Mehsud, the government had clearly hoped his outspoken criticism of the Taliban leader would foster others to defect and help the army with tips on where to find him.
Suspect fled in waiting car
Aides to the slain Taliban official said a guard walked into Zainuddin's office after morning prayers and opened fire at about 7 a.m., hitting him in the head and chest, and then fled in a waiting car.
Baz Mohammad, a Zainuddin aide who was wounded, accused Mehsud of ordering the assassination.
Zainuddin had recently criticized Mehsud for using suicide bombings to target civilians and, more importantly in his view, clerics inside mosques.
"It was definitely Baitullah's man who infiltrated our ranks, and he has done his job," Mohammad told The Associated Press, vowing to avenge the death.
But that will be no easy task, as shown by the military's challenges in going after Mehsud in the tribal lands on the Afghan border, where he is based. Instead of a full-on confrontation, the army has been using airstrikes and artillery to try to soften up his men's entrenched positions by attacking suspected hide-outs and training camps from far away.
The Obama administration supports anti-militant operations, seeing them as a measure of Pakistan's resolve in combating a growing insurgency. The battle could also help the war in Afghanistan because militants have launched cross-border attacks on coalition troops there.
'Overcome all tribal dynamics'
Mahmood Shah, a former top security official, said the slaying sends a message to the government that only a major operation would have a chance of defeating Mehsud.
"Baitullah Mehsud has overcome all tribal dynamics. He has resources, funding and a fighting force to strike anywhere in Pakistan," Shah said, calling him a front man for al-Qaida and his home base of South Waziristan the "epicenter in the war on terror."
Mehsud has been accused of masterminding the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and of sending scores of suicide bombers across Pakistan, fostering the creation of an alliance of Taliban commanders against him barely a month ago.
The strength of the mutineers — led by Zainuddin, Turkestani Bhittani and Commander Amir Thesil — is dwarfed by Mehsud's army, said a tribal leader from South Waziristan who asked not to be identified because he feared either Mehsud or Mehsud's enemies would kill him. He estimated Mehsud's strength at upward of 12,000 fighters, including Pakistanis, Afghans, Arabs, Uzbeks, Burmese, Chinese and even some Americans and Australians.
"They have control of the whole Mehsud area," the tribal leader said, referring to a 2,500-square-mile swath of land in the remote, mountainous tribal zone. "He will be difficult to eliminate. The Pakistani forces will face a tough fight."
That battle may be harder with Zainuddin's assassination.
"Any further defections from Baitullah Mehsud might not take place," Shah said, adding that Zainuddin's value to the government was as a potential informant who "could tell where the hideouts would have been."
Residents taking wait-and-see approach
Army spokesman Gen. Athar Abbas said that the military has not helped any of the anti-Mehsud Taliban forces, which he said have not demonstrated an ability to protect themselves.
"The government may be engaging with them and may be doing whatever at a political level," said Abbas, but the military isn't ready to partner with any insurgents who "might end up being a future problem for us."
Zainuddin, who broke with Mehsud in 2007, was estimated to have about 3,000 armed followers in the towns of Dera Ismail Khan and nearby Tank.
Although Zainuddin too had a ruthless past, he denounced Mehsud this month for recent attacks on mosques that killed clerics and civilians, bombings apparently in retaliation for the army offensive in the northwestern Swat Valley.
Residents of South Waziristan are taking a wait-and-see approach to the Pakistani military operation, reluctant to show outright support for an army they worry will not complete the job.
"You have to know that among the tribes we will follow whoever is the strongest," said the tribal leader. A shura, or council of elders, for the Mehsud tribe was held June 16, but the tribal leaders, who had previously endorsed Mehsud, broke up without any decision except to meet again.
"They are waiting to see what happens. Before, whenever they met they gave their support to Mehsud. This time they want to wait and see what happens with the military and the government," the tribal leader said. "Their silence means they are waiting."
The renegade Taliban agree on the need to fight U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.
'Every good Muslim's duty'
In a telephone interview last weekend from his home in South Waziristan, Bhittani told The Associated Press that while he wanted Mehsud dead, jihad against foreigners in Afghanistan is "every good Muslim's duty."
It's in the tribal regions, which share a 1,560-mile border with Afghanistan, that the United States says al-Qaida revived after the U.S.-led invasion that drove the Taliban from power in Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks.
The assassination comes four months after Mehsud successfully consolidated his hold on the Tehrik-e-Taliban, a two-year-old organization which claims to represent Taliban leaders from across Pakistan's tribal belt. He healed some potentially damaging rifts, apparently under pressure from Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar.
In that agreement, he closed ranks with powerful Taliban leaders — Maulvi Naseer in South Waziristan and Gul Bahadar in North Waziristan. Both men have battle-hardened troops, in contrast to the weaker mutineers, and could prove a more difficult opponent for the Pakistan army.
While the agreement is holding, there are reports that neither Naseer nor Bahadar is ready to send his fighters to Mehsud's aid unless either is hit by U.S. drones patrolling the tribal regions.
Dozens of airstrikes have been carried out in the tribal regions over the last year, drawing criticism from Pakistan's leaders that they jeopardize the military operation by firing up an already raging anti-Americanism.