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Little-known extremist cleric chosen to lead Afghan Taliban

Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhundzada has been named the new Afghan Taliban leader after his predecessor was killed in a drone strike four days ago.

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    Taliban new leader Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada is seen in an undated photograph, posted on a Taliban twitter feed on May 25, 2016, and identified separately by several Taliban officials, who declined be named.
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A little-known extremist cleric was chosen Wednesday to be the new leader of the Afghan Taliban, just days after a U.S. drone strike killed his predecessor.

But within hours of the Taliban's announcement that the group's council of leaders had unanimously selected Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, opposition to him emerged — a sign that rifts within the insurgency could widen and possibly drive the Taliban further from peace talks with the government of Afghanistan.

The Taliban called on all Muslims to support Akhundzada as a matter of religious obligation and declared three days of official mourning for Mullah Mohammed Akhtar Mansour, who was slain Saturday by a U.S. drone in Pakistan.

The announcement came as a suicide bomber struck a minibus carrying court employees in Kabul, killing at least 11 people, an official said. The Taliban promptly claimed responsibility for the attack.

Afghan government officials took the opportunity of Akhundzada's ascension to again offer direct negotiations aimed at ending the Taliban's 15-year insurgency. Both Kabul and Washington considered Mansour to be an obstacle to the peace process.

The office of President Ashraf Ghani said the latest developments brought the Taliban "yet another opportunity to end and renounce violence, lay down their arms, and resume a normal and peaceful life."

Deputy presidential spokesman Zafar Hashemi said if the Taliban decide against joining the peace process, "they will face the fate of their leadership."

Hours after the Taliban's statement on their new leader was made to the media, the head of a main dissident faction that broke away last year to protest Mansour's elevation said the group would not accept Akhundzada either.

The breakaway faction, led by Mullah Mohammad Rasool, did not appear to object so much to Akhundzada as to the closed and undemocratic manner of the selection process by the council, which is believed to have met in Pakistan. Rasool's splinter group is based in western Afghanistan near the border with Iran, and has fought fierce battles in the south with Mansour loyalists.

Rasool's deputy, Mullah Abdul Manan Niazi, said the faction would not accept Akhundzada's leadership for the same reason they rejected Mansour: He was elected by a small clique of Pakistan-based insiders with little input from the rank-and-file or field commanders in Afghanistan.

"For us, the issue with Mullah Akhtar Mansour and this Haibatullah is the same," Niazi said. "We were not against Mullah Akhtar Mansour but the way he was selected, and yet again they sit together and choose one another. ... We will not accept him as a new leader until and unless all religious scholars and tribal elders sit together and appoint a new leader."

Akhundzada, believed to be in his 50s, is a religious scholar who was the Taliban's chief justice before his appointment as a deputy to Mansour. He is known for public statements justifying the Taliban's extremist tactics and their war against the Afghan government.

His views are regarded as hawkish, and he is expected to continue the aggressive style of Mansour, who refused offers to negotiate with the Kabul government and launched a series of bold attacks during his brief and divisive rule.

Akhundzada is regarded as a convincing orator and was close to Taliban founder Mullah Mohammad Omar, who consulted with him on religious matters.

A member of the Noorzai tribe, Akhundzada comes from a line of religious scholars and heads a string of madrassas, or religious schools, across Pakistan's southwestern Baluchistan province.

Pakistani authorities have long been accused by both Kabul and Washington of giving shelter and support to some Taliban leaders — an accusation that Islamabad denies. The insurgents have been fighting to overthrow the Kabul government since 2001, when their own Islamic regime was removed by the U.S. invasion.

Mansour officially became leader of the Taliban last summer, when the 2013 death of Mullah Omar was revealed, but he is believed to have run the movement in Mullah Omar's name. The revelation of Mansour's apparent deception led to widespread mistrust among senior Taliban commanders, with several factions breaking away and fighting Mansour loyalists in Afghanistan's poppy-growing southern Taliban heartland.

Senior Taliban figures had hoped Mansour's death and Akhundzada's ascension could help heal some of those rifts. A former foreign minister under the Taliban, Mullah Mohammad Ghous, told The Associated Press that Akhundzada was well-respected inside the movement and choosing him as leader was "a very wise decision."

The Taliban statement also said two new deputies to Akhundzada have been appointed — both of whom had earlier been considered to be among the main contenders for the top job.

One of them is Sirajuddin Haqqani, who was also one of Mansour's deputies and who leads the notorious Haqqani network — the faction behind some of the most ferocious attacks in Afghanistan since 2001. The other is the son of Mullah Omar, Mullah Mohammad Yaqoub, who controls the Taliban military commissions for 15 of Afghanistan's 34 provinces.

Akhundzada's appointment came as a surprise to some, including Ghous, who said that despite not being a top contender but a "third candidate," the new leader would rise above any personal animosity or conflict that might have arisen had either Haqqani or Yaqoub been chosen.

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Associated Press writer Rahim Faiez contributed to this report.

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