- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 11, 2009

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan | Pakistan is worried that al Qaeda is trying to install its own “chief terrorist” as the head of the Pakistani Taliban after the apparent killing of the group’s leader in a CIA missile strike, a top official said Monday.

Meanwhile, one of the militants thought to be a potential successor phoned the Associated Press to dispel reports that he had been killed during a clash among those vying to lead the group. The militant, Hakimullah Mehsud, insisted again that Pakistani Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud was alive and said the insurgent group remained united.

Interior Minister Rehman Malik told BBC Radio that all the “credible information” points to Baitullah Mehsud having died in the Wednesday missile attack.

“It will take some time for them to regroup,” Mr. Malik said. “The other thing which is a bit worrying is that al Qaeda is getting grouped in the same place, and now they are trying to find out somebody to install him as the leader, as the chief terrorist, in that area.”

Mr. Malik said Pakistan was taking “all those measures which are necessary” to respond to the scenario.

The 30-something Baitullah Mehsud grew in power largely because of his links to the predominantly Arab terrorism network, analysts say. Baitullah Mehsud and his deputies controlled swaths of Pakistan’s tribal belt along the Afghan border, a region where al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden is rumored to be hiding.

Al Qaeda is thought to have provided guidance and funding to Baitullah Mehsud, who in turn could provide suicide bombers and other assets to carry out attacks throughout Pakistan.

Mr. Malik did not specify which candidate might be al Qaeda’s preference, though it is highly unlikely that Pakistani Taliban fighters would agree to an Arab candidate or anyone not of the Pashtun ethnic group that dominates the tribal belt.

U.S. and Pakistani 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 the South Waziristan tribal area. Conflicting reports have also emerged about clashes between rival Taliban factions during a meeting to select Baitullah Mehsud’s successor.

Some reports said one or both of the leading contenders - Hakimullah Mehsud and Waliur Rehman - were killed or wounded.

Hakimullah Mehsud spoke to an AP reporter who was familiar with his voice, and claimed that the reports of infighting were all part of a government propaganda campaign aimed at disrupting the militants.

“There is neither any rift in the Taliban ranks nor will they fight against each other,” Hakimullah Mehsud said. “This propaganda cannot divide us. And I will say again Baitullah Mehsud is alive.”

Also Monday, a Taliban commander in the Makeen area of South Waziristan told AP that Hakimullah Mehsud and Rehman addressed the militants on wireless radio from an unknown location late Sunday. He said the address came after Taliban militants were told that Baitullah Mehsud himself would deliver the speech.

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