By SALMAN MASOOD and PIR ZUBAIR SHAH
Published: June 23, 2009
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — A top rival of Baitullah Mehsud, the leader of Pakistani Taliban who has orchestrated a string of bloody suicide bombings in recent years, was shot dead Tuesday in northwestern Pakistan.
Qari Zainuddin was killed Tuesday morning in the northwestern town of Dera Ismail Khan, police officials said.
Iqbal Khan, the district police chief of Dera Ismail Khan, said the investigation so far indicated the gunman was Gulbadin Mehsud, a guard. In a telephone interview, he said another guard was wounded before the assailant fled. The alleged attacker is not related to the Taliban leader
The killing of Mr. Zainuddin is a serious blow to the government, which has supported him as a counter to Mr. Mehsud in its campaign against the Taliban. The military is mounting an operation against Mr. Mehsud in his sanctuary in South Waziristan, in the mountains of western Pakistan, and Mr. Zainuddin and his group was assisting by dominating an adjoining area where Mr. Mehsud’s group used to hide. Pakistani jets have targeted Mehsud hideouts in recent days.
The killing showed the long reach of Mr. Mehsud, whose suicide bombings in major cities have terrorized Pakistanis for years. It was a message, Pakistani law enforcement officials said, that there are serious consequences for crossing him. Mr. Zainuddin had given a press conference in recent days, speaking out against Mr. Zainuddin and his tactics.
“It tells people if you side with the government this is what will happen to you,” said Talat Masood, a retired general and military analyst. “It says the government can’t give you protection but the other side can.”
The killing also showed the government’s weak intelligence in its effort to combat Baitullah Mehsud, he said.
The government’s strategy to rely on dividing the Mehsud tribe was now in question, Mr. Masood added. The army, which is in the early stages of deploying troops to Wouth Waziristan would now have to rely more on the army, he said.
Mr. Zainuddin, in his 30s, was part of Mr. Mehsud’s tribe, but had split with him, and joined forces with Turkestan Batani, an older Taliban fighter who also changed sides. The two men had held a jirga, or tribal meeting, with as many as a hundred elders of the Mehsud tribe in the town of Tank earlier this month in an effort to rally opposition to Mr. Mehsud.
But the killing showed just how tenuous this splinter group’s hold on power in the Tank and Dera Ismail Khan area was, and served as a strong warning to others who might have considered rising up to oppose Mr. Mehsud.
News agencies, quoting intelligence officials and residents, reported separately that a missile strike by an American drone aircraft killed six Mehsud fighters near the Afghan border.
Officially, the Pakistani military denies supporting Mr. Zainuddin or Turkestan Bhaitani, another ally-turned-rival of Mr. Mehsud.
In the last two months, Mr. Zainuddin’s group had effectively challenged Mr. Mehsud and killed 30 of his followers. He and Mr. Bhaitani had made it difficult for the Mehsud fighters to operate freely in Tank and Dera Ismail Khan districts.
Mr. Zainuddin had vociferously criticized Mr. Mehsud and claimed that he had the ability to take on Mr. Mehsud with the support of 3,000 fighters.
“Baitullah Mehsud is not involved in jihad because Islam does not allow suicide attacks, which his group is perpetrating,” Mr. Zainuddin was quoted as saying in one interview.
Some reports in local media have also suggested that Mr. Mehsud killed Mr. Zainuddin’s father some years ago.
Mr. Zainuddin was also the cousin of Abdullah Mehsud, a top Taliban militant who was killed in 2007 when security forces raided a hideout in Baluchistan Province.
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