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Both Pakistani and U.S. officials have accused Mr. Mehsud of leading the December 2007 assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Mr. Mehsud denied any involvement, and Mrs. Bhutto’s followers said later that they doubted Mr. Mehsud was responsible.

During the Bush administration, the apparent immunity of Mr. Mehsud and his forces from U.S. drone attacks prompted a spate of rumors that the militant leader was somehow involved with the Americans.

After Sunday’s attack, local tribesmen told The Times that they expect Mr. Mehsud to retaliate by targeting U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.

Mr. Mehsud is the head of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), an umbrella organization of Pakistani Taliban, as well as the undeclared leader of the recent alliance known as the Shura Ittehadul Mujahedeen (SIM).

In forming the alliance, militant commanders said they had two goals: fighting U.S. troops in Afghanistan and imposing Shariah law throughout Pakistan’s tribal areas.

Syed Alam Mehsud, vice president of the Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party in the North West Frontier Province, told The Times that the missile strikes will have a profound impact.

“It seems the Americans have come to realize that after the unification of major Taliban groups and Baitullah being its head, the TTP chief is the real threat and that is why they have started striking his strongholds with missiles from drones,” he said.

He added, “I think Baitullah’s turn has come. The reason is the anticipated spring offensive of Taliban to start in April and the arrival of thousands of additional [U.S. troops] in Afghanistan’s south.”

• Sara A. Carter reported from Washington.