Rival of Pakistani Taliban leader killed

The murder of Qari Zainuddin dampens hope that militant chief Baitullah Mehsud could be weakened through tribal rivalry.

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A tribal leader who opposed the Taliban chief in Pakistan was shot dead on Tuesday in the northwestern town of Dera Ismail Khan.

In recent weeks, Qari Zainuddin has criticized the Taliban leader, Baitullah Mehsud – who has claimed responsibility for most terrorist attacks in Pakistan since 2004 – and decried his activities as un-Islamic. Mr. Zainuddin's bold statements against Mr. Mehsud had led to speculation that the Pakistani government and military were encouraging the tribal leader to confront his rival. Zainuddin was also affiliated with the Mehsud tribe and heads the militant group that was previously led by Abdullah Mehsud, a former Guantánamo Bay detainee.

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Tribal infighting between the two had gone unchecked by the authorities, apparently in the hope that Zainuddin's opposition to Mehsud would weaken the Taliban leader's position. However, with Zainuddin's death, hopes of exploiting tribal rivalries to defeat Mehsud have been dampened.

According to the BBC, a guard entered Zainuddin's office on Tuesday after morning prayers and opened fire. Although no one has claimed responsibility for the attack, it is believed to be Mehsud's work. "It was definitely Baitullah's man who infiltrated our ranks, and he has done his job," said Baz Mohammad, an aide of Zainuddin who was also wounded in the attack, the BBC reported.

Zainuddin's death has been confirmed by the superintendent of police in Dera Ismail Khan, reports Dawn, an English-language Pakistani daily.

The tribal leader's death will likely embolden Mehsud. According to The Christian Science Monitor, Zainuddin posed a serious threat to the Taliban head.

A Pakistani intelligence official estimates Zainuddin's strength at about 2,000 to 3,000 fighters, while Baitullah, who until recently had the support of 10,000 to 13,000, these days is losing men. A head-on fight would create "unspeakable" trouble for Baitullah, says former ambassador to Afghanistan Rustam Shah Mohmand, because Zainuddin also enjoys greater support from the local population.

Zainuddin's murder comes just as the military is preparing a major offensive against Mehsud in the tribal area of South Waziristan. The Monitor reported Monday that Zainuddin could pose a larger threat to Mehsud than the military's offensive.

Earlier this month, Dawn reported that the Pakistani government was "turning a blind eye" to tribal infighting between Mehsud and Zainuddin, who had formed an anti-Mehsud alliance with another tribal lord. This was perceived as silent support for Zainuddin by the authorities.

The government's recognition matters. In Feb 2007 the government had recognised Baitullah Mehsud as the Mehsud chieftain by signing a peace deal with him. Now it is backing a different horse and the Mehsuds appear willing to bet on it....
The tribal dynamics and punitive action, government officials believe, should tilt the balance against the man [Mehsud] who carries $ 5 million reward for information leading to his capture or death.

Indeed, Zainuddin had been held up as the best counterforce to Mehsud. As The Pakistani Spectator, a Pakistani political blog, put it:

As [Zainuddin] comes forward from Waziristan, a new hope has emerged. This opportunity must not be missed by the Pakistani security forces. Enough of the blunders, neglect and other excuses.

As such, Zainuddin's death will deal a blow to the Pakistani Army as it intensifies its operation against Mehsud on his home turf in South Waziristan. In the past few days, the military has launched airstrikes on Mehsud's bases and secured the main road into the mountainous tribal area, reports Reuters.

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