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Pakistani Taliban: Two men to replace Baitullah Mehsud

Hakimullah Mehsud and Waliur Rehman will share control, but analysts say infighting could erupt again.

By Saeed ShahMcClatchy Newspapers / August 26, 2009

Pakistan Taliban commander Hakimullah Mehsud (l.) is seen with his arm around Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud during a news conference in South Waziristan in this May 24, 2008 file photo.

Reuters/File

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Pakistan's extremist Taliban movement acknowledged Tuesday that its leader, Baitullah Mehsud, had died in the aftermath of a United States drone missile attack early this month and confirmed that two men would replace him.

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Hakimullah Mehsud, a violent young jihadist with links to Al Qaeda, will be in nominal control but his rival, Waliur Rehman, will take charge of Waziristan, a vital region for the militant movement. Mr. Rehman, in a telephone interview Tuesday with reporters, threatened attacks against the West and called President Barack Obama "our foremost enemy."

The Pakistani Taliban provides sanctuary for Al Qaeda and the Afghan insurgents in Pakistan's lawless tribal area, and its leadership and goals will affect international forces in Afghanistan and terror plots against Western targets.

The militant group sustained heavy losses in late April following the launch of a US-backed Pakistani Army operation, and the death of Baitullah Mehsud appeared to leave it in disarray. Now Pakistan and the US will be watching to see if new leadership can stabilize the Pakistani Taliban.

Both of the top contenders for the leadership said Baitullah Mehsud had succumbed to his injuries Sunday, not on Aug. 5, when a US missile struck a house in South Waziristan, his native region, as US and Pakistan intelligence officials had thought.

The admission came after weeks of denials from militants that Baitullah, who brought together 13 extremist groups in the country's northwest to form the umbrella organization known as Tehrek-e-Taliban in December 2007, had been eliminated.

‘A clever compromise’

On the surface, the power struggle to replace Baitullah appears to have been won by Hakimullah, a trigger-happy tribesman with the reputation of a thug. But his rival, Rehman, who was closer to Baitullah and is regarded as much less brutal than Hakimullah, was given charge of the all-important Waziristan region.

"The real power is in Waziristan, and Waliur Rehman will run things there," said Saifullah Mahsud, an analyst at the FATA Research Center, an independent think tank in Islamabad. "It's a clever compromise formula. Waliur Rehman has the real power."

Remote, mountainous Waziristan is a potential hiding place for Osama bin Laden and a safe haven for jihadists from around the world.

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