- The Washington Times - Monday, August 10, 2009

ISLAMABAD | The U.S. and Pakistan are almost certain a U.S. missile strike killed the head of Pakistan’s Taliban and that his death led to a fierce power struggle among his deputies, officials said Sunday, despite claims and counterclaims as to the fate of the country’s most-wanted man.

Government and intelligence officials, as well as some Taliban commanders and at least one rival militant, have said Baitullah Mehsud likely died in Wednesday’s drone strike on his father-in-law’s house in northwestern Pakistan’s rugged, lawless tribal area near the Afghan border.

White House National Security Adviser James L. Jones said the administration is “90 percent” certain that Mr. Mehsud is dead.

“I wish I could, to be honest with you, totally” confirm his death, he said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “But the evidence is pretty conclusive.”

Mr. Mehsud’s death would be a “big deal” in the United States’ ongoing effort to combat global terrorism, Mr. Jones said.

The apparent demise of Mr. Mehsud also symbolizes “a gradual coming together by the family of nations to reject terrorism as something that’s acceptable,” he said.

And in terms of the Pakistani region, news of Mr. Mehsud’s death is proof that Pakistan’s armed forces and government “are doing quite well in terms of their fight against extremism.”

Reports of dissension in the Taliban’s ranks as to who will succeed Mr. Mehsud “is a positive indication that in Pakistan things are turning for the better,” Mr. Jones said on “Fox News Sunday.”

“It goes to show that I think the strategy that we’re engaged with Pakistan is actually having some effect, and that’s good,” he said on Fox. “When you can take out a leader like Mehsud, you do show — you do have some dissension in the ranks, and it reduces their capability to organize, regardless of how many they have.”

Mr. Jones added that the United States has a “growing relationship” in terms of intelligence sharing with Pakistan and applauded the Asian country for its recent successes in combating terrorism, particularly in the country’s remote tribal regions.

“Pakistan deserves to be credited for its role, and we hope that we continue the pressure [on the Taliban] and we don’t let up,” Mr. Jones said on Fox.

But three Taliban commanders — Hakimullah; Qari Hussain, who is known for training suicide bombers; and Taliban spokesman Maulvi Umar — called AP reporters Saturday insisting Mr. Mehsud was alive.

Neither side has produced any concrete evidence, and the claims were impossible to verify.

There also were conflicting reports about whether a major fight had broken out between rival Taliban factions during a meeting, or shura, to select Mr. Mehsud’s replacement, and whether one or two of the most likely contenders — Hakimullah and Waliur Rehman — had been killed or wounded.

The meeting was in the Waziristan region in Pakistan’s tribal region, a mountainous area off-limits to journalists.

While it was unclear whether there had been a dispute at all — one Taliban commander, Noor Sayed, denied there had been any disagreement — any succession battle for the top slot in Pakistan’s Taliban is likely to be fierce and potentially bloody.

Mr. Mehsud’s Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan is not a single, cohesive group. Rather, it is a loose alliance of tribal groups that often have disputes and power struggles among one another, so removing the man who coordinated the factions could lead to intense rivalry over who would succeed him. It could be in the interests of top commanders to deny their leader was dead until they could agree on who would replace him.

Rahumullah Yousafzai, a prominent journalist and specialist on the Taliban, said Mr. Mehsud’s apparent death, and possible divisions among commanders, were a good sign for the government.

“It is now also an opportunity for the Pakistani intelligence that they can create even more splits in Taliban ranks,” he said.

“There is no strong leader like [Mr. Mehsud] who can hold the Tehrik-e-Taliban in Pakistan together,” he added.

Two intelligence officials and two Taliban sources told an AP reporter that a series of shuras were held in various locations in South Waziristan. They said that while the meetings had been attended mainly by local commanders in the initial days, Sunday’s shura was also attended by Afghan Taliban representatives and Arab fighters to resolve differences over Mr. Mehsud’s succession.

The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation. None of their claims could be independently verified.

The U.S. drone strike also sparked an anti-American protest Sunday in the northwestern frontier city of Peshawar, with about 8,000 supporters of the hard-line Islamist party Jamaat-e-Islami taking to the streets to denounce what they called U.S. interference in Pakistan’s affairs and to demand an end to drone strikes.

Pakistan publicly opposes the missile strikes, saying they anger local tribes and make it harder for the army to operate. Still, many analysts suspect the two countries have a secret deal allowing the strikes.

Associated Press writers Ishtiaq Mahsud in Dera Ismail Khan, Zarar Khan and Ashraf Khan in Islamabad, and Riaz Khan in Peshawar contributed to this report. The Washington Times’ Sean Lengell contributed to this report in Washington.

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