- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 9, 2009

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan | A 2-month-old alliance of Pakistani Taliban factions is beginning to fray and could undermine Baitullah Mehsud, a Taliban leader who has claimed responsibility for recent terrorist attacks far from Pakistan's tribal regions and even threatened the United States.

A militant commander in the Haji Nazeer group - one of three groups in the alliance - told The Washington Times that the main lieutenant in the group has expressed opposition to the accord.

A second Nazeer commander also is objecting, said a Pakistani official in South Waziristan, a rugged tribal area on the border with Afghanistan. He spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect himself from retribution.

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The rifts are being reported as the Obama administration plans major increases in aid to Pakistan and the Taliban continues to make inroads in some parts of the country.

Scores of Taliban militants clashed with local forces in the Buner district 60 miles northwest of Islamabad, the capital, on Monday. Ten people, including at least seven Taliban members, died, local officials said.

A Taliban council in the Bajaur tribal region bordering Afghanistan on Tuesday announced that it was issuing “arrest warrants” for officials who had invited women to government offices. The Taliban had warned women to stay in their houses.

Pakistani security forces last month claimed to have defeated the Taliban in Bajaur and even to have rejected the militants' offer of a truce.

Still, the reported rifts provide the Pakistani government with a rare piece of good news and suggest there is an opportunity to win over more adherents within the tribal areas that have sheltered al Qaeda as well as Afghan and Pakistani Taliban leaders for years.

A Pakistani official told The Times that “Baitullah is definitely under pressure” and suggested that the Islamabad government was working to deepen the rifts. He asked not to be named because of the sensitive nature of government operations.

The United States has put a bounty of $5 million on Mehsud and repeatedly attacked his camps with drones. Mehsud's Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has claimed responsibility for recent attacks against police cadets in Lahore and Islamabad and threatened last week to burn down the White House.

In February, the TTP united with the Nazeer group of South Waziristan and a group in North Waziristan led by Commander Hafiz Gul Bahadur. The alliance, known as the Shura Ittehadul Mujahedeen (SIM), has set as its goal fighting U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan as well as combating Pakistani security forces.

However, both the Nazeer and Bahadur groups previously sided with the Pakistani government and fought the TTP in 2007, objecting to Mehsud's sheltering of foreign fighters from Uzbekistan who had killed scores of Waziri tribal militants and noncombatants.

The militant commander said that Mehsud forces provided sanctuary to Uzbek fighters and killed Nazeer loyalists. Commander Tehsil, the Nazeer leader who is now objecting to the Taliban alliance, is a distant relative of one of the victims, the militant commander said.

A second Nazeer commander, Malang, also is objecting to the alliance, said a Pakistani official in Wana, the capital of South Waziristan.

Gulistan Wazir, an Islamabad-based analyst of tribal areas, told The Times that there are clear signs of rifts within the alliance.

“These differences were bound to crop up after the coming together of militant heads with significantly opposite attitudes,” he said. “Baitullah is a ruthless commander while Nazeer has a repute of a benign man in his native area.”

Imran Khan, a terrorism researcher at University of Peshawar, said the divisions could benefit the United States.

“Opposition to Baituallah Mehsud from rival militants is significant from the American point of view as it is a well-known fact that the terror chief has had very strong ties to al Qaeda,” Mr. Khan said. “As far as I know, the people of Waziristan at this point in time are not in favor of U.S. drone attacks on al Qaeda and Taliban hide-outs, but simultaneously, they are not against such attacks. There is a misperception that local residents support Taliban; to be precise, they don't. People look unfavorably at all shades of militants but they have been unable to throw away their stranglehold. Now with rifts among Taliban, I think people would welcome the development.”

Mehsud also faces opposition from members of his own tribe who have been forced to flee native territory and are distributing pamphlets in South Waziristan and adjoining North West Frontier Province calling Mehsud an infidel and asking local tribesmen to rise against him.

According to the pamphlet, “Baitullah Mehsud is not involved in jihad because Islam does not permit suicide attacks, which his group has been making. Our doors are open to all those who have suffered injustice at the hands of Baitullah. We also warn people against keeping contacts with Baitullah or facilitating him in prolonging his rule.”

Mehsud's supporters have distributed their own pamphlets in response, accusing those behind the anti-Mehsud pamphlets of being puppets of the Pakistani government.

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