The deputy head of the Pakistani Taliban announced Wednesday that he was temporarily assuming leadership of the militant group because its chief, whom Washington and Islamabad have said was almost certainly killed by a recent missile strike, was unwell.
The announcement by Maulvi Faqir Mohammad is another sign that Taliban commanders are jockeying for power after the reported death of Baitullah Mehsud in an Aug. 5 CIA missile strike in northwestern Pakistan's tribal belt. A captured Taliban spokesman reportedly acknowledged to authorities that Mehsud was dead, but other commanders have insisted he is alive.
Mohammad also claimed Mehsud was alive, but said he was too ill to lead Pakistan's Taliban.
"I was the deputy leader of the Tehrik-e-Taliban and now since Baitullah Mehsud is unable to perform as head of the organization due to health reasons and unable to come on the foreground, I am announcing I am assuming the role of acting chief," Mohammad told The Associated Press by telephone from an undisclosed location.
He stressed his appointment was only temporary, and said the final decision on who would replace Mehsud would rest with a 42-member Taliban council, known as a shura.
"Now, when the entire world has its eye on us, our shura will decide our future leader in consultation with all," Mohammad told the AP.
Two of the top contenders are considered to be leading commanders Hakimullah Mehsud and Waliur Rehman, and Mohammad described them as "both capable and energetic leaders."
Pakistan's Taliban is more a loose alliance of disparate groups and tribal factions rather than one cohesive group, and government and intelligence officials have been saying that they are now embroiled in a bitter leadership struggle.
"No one can deny the struggle and sacrifices of the Mehsud Taliban, but the Taliban of other areas also rendered sacrifices and have done great struggle," Mohammad said.
He also said the recently arrested Taliban spokesman, Maulvi Umar, was being replaced by Muslim Khan, who until now was the militant's spokesman for the Swat Valley region in northern Pakistan. An intelligence official said Tuesday that Umar had acknowledged under questioning that Mehsud was dead.
Mohammad claimed that even before his arrest on Monday, Umar had already decided to step down as spokesman because he had been experiencing communications problems in the Bajur tribal region where he operates.
The commander said he had suggested that the group now change its name from Tehrik-e-Taliban, which means Taliban Movement, to Ittehad-e-Taliban, or Taliban Alliance, and that the shura would discuss the request.
Fighting against 'common enemy'
Pakistan's Western allies have been desperate to see a crackdown on militants threatening the stability of the nuclear-armed country as well as the success of the U.S. and NATO-led mission in neighboring Afghanistan, where violence is surging ahead of Thursday's elections.
Visiting U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke on Wednesday praised recent gains against the militants, including the retaking of the Swat Valley, 100 miles from Islamabad, from the Taliban in July. He described the Taliban as a threat to Afghanistan, Pakistan and the United States.
"We are fighting against the common enemy," he said during a news conference in the southern port city of Karachi.
Holbrooke said this week that recent gains against the Taliban had allowed the focus of U.S.-Pakistani relations to shift to energy and trade issues. On Wednesday, he pledged U.S. assistance to help Pakistan tackle its energy crisis.
Each day, millions of Pakistanis suffer prolonged power cuts because demand for electricity far outstrips supply. The unstable power supply has damaged local industry, with factories unable to keep up production levels, and has sometimes triggered riots.
Holbrooke said resolving the problem and improving the country's economy was vital to ensuring long-term stability. He did not mention specific projects, but said a group of U.S. energy experts and engineers were to arrive Thursday to begin technical planning for American assistance.
"Improving the security situation and nurturing the business environment go hand in hand," Holbrooke told a news conference in Karachi, Pakistan's commercial capital. He also announced the U.S. would begin issuing 100 business visas each week in Karachi as of next month to ease access to the U.S. market
However, the envoy stressed that Pakistan itself would have to take the lead in resolving the issue.
"Let me emphasize that the United States does not have a magic solution to Pakistan's energy problems," he said.