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Pakistani Taliban under pressure from tribal rival

A escalating feud could distract Baitullah Mehsud and his 10,000-plus men from fighting Western forces in Afghanistan.

By Rehmat MehsudContributor, Staff writer / May 10, 2009

Trouble: Pakistanis fled Swabi district Friday as the army continued attacking militants in the northwest. The Taliban is battling the government but also fighting among themselves for power.

Faisal Mahmood/Reuters


Wana, Pakistan; and New Delhi

A top leader of the Pakistani Taliban, slapped in March with a $5 million bounty by the United States, is wanted worldwide.

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Yet the real danger Baitullah Mehsud faces may be an emerging rival from his local tribe in northwestern Pakistan.

The power struggle could distract his Taliban forces along the Afghan border from their spring offensive against US and allied troops.

Mr. Mehsud commands one of the three major pockets of Taliban fighters in Pakistan. His rugged domain here in South Waziristan provides a launch pad for cross-border attacks into southern Afghanistan and a suspected hideout for Al Qaeda figures.

His new adversary, Qari Zainuddin Mehsud, has joined forces with another splinter group and has dispatched his men to cut off Baitullah's movements and foment a popular uprising against him.

"I think Baitullah Mehsud is feeling constrained by this," says Mahmood Shah, Pakistan's former security chief of this lawless border region known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). Zainuddin remains less organized than Baitullah, says Mr. Shah, but he is gaining in momentum and popularity among the local fighters.

The rupture raises the prospect that tribal rivalries could be exploited to sap the Taliban movement. But analysts warn that there are limits to a divide-and-rule strategy given the way the Taliban have undermined tribal power structures – and resisted meddling by Islamabad or Washington.

"When a group gets government patronage it gets discredited, so I think for some time the group should be left on their own," says Shah. "If [outside governments] have to do it, they should do it very secretly."

Two subtribes, one full-blown feud

This particular rift between Zainuddin and Baitullah dates back to March 2008. Assailants in the town of Tank killed Muhammad Yousaf, a prominent elder of the Shamenkhel subtribe and Zainuddin's uncle. The Taliban have been known to target tribal elders in an effort to seize power. Soon after, gunmen shot dead Baitullah's younger brother, Yahya Khan Mehsud.

Until this incident, Zainuddin had been a leading member of Baitullah's fighting force. Now tit-for-tat killings have sowed the seeds for a full-blown blood feud between the two men and their subtribes.

Baitullah warned his rival to "be ready for a bloody clash" after an Apr. 15 deadline for surrender passed, in a message passed to Zainuddin through tribal elders. "Neutral members of the population should stay indoors, because everyone who gets in our way will be crushed," he threatened.

Such tough talk has become the norm between the two men, whose forces have clashed on and off over the past year.