- Associated Press - Thursday, April 28, 2011

PESHAWAR, Pakistan | Crumbling unity among militants could provide the Pakistani army an opening to conduct a limited offensive against a particularly vicious Taliban group in a strategic tribal region, according to analysts and a senior military official.

The target of such an operation in North Waziristan would be the most violent factions within the so-called Pakistani Taliban.

Their leader, Hakimullah Mehsud, is believed to be increasingly isolated after executing a prominent former Pakistani official over the objections of senior militant leaders.

Although Mr. Mehsud has been linked to attacks in neighboring Afghanistan, his main focus appears to be in plotting carnage elsewhere in Pakistan. And that makes him a prime target for the army.

Washington has long urged the Pakistanis to launch an operation in North Waziristan, a region overrun by an assortment of militant groups, including al Qaeda. Most U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan take place in North Waziristan.

Already there are more than 30,000 soldiers in North Waziristan, and some analysts say the Pakistani army could redeploy quickly to the area. The army has 140,000 soldiers in the tribal regions that border Afghanistan.

The Pakistanis, however, are unlikely to target the Haqqani group, which the U.S. considers its greatest enemy in Afghanistan.

Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, complained last week that Pakistan’s secret service maintains links to the Haqqani Network.

The Haqqanis are Afghan Taliban who control parts of eastern Afghanistan and have bases in North Waziristan. If the Haqqanis and other militant groups in North Waziristan cooperate with a military assault against the Pakistani Taliban, that would give the army more options.

The fissures among the militants were laid bare in February, when Mr. Mehsud released a gruesome video that confirmed the shooting death of former Pakistani spy Sultan Amir Tarar, better known as Col. Imam, according to a senior Pakistani army officer who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.

As Pakistan’s consul general in Afghanistan’s Kandahar province during the Taliban’s rule, Col. Imam was the conduit for money and weapons to the religious movement.

A former Pakistani intelligence officer, Col. Imam met regularly with the Afghan Taliban’s reclusive leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar. Col. Imam was known to have kept contact with leading Taliban in hiding in Pakistan since the U.S.-led coalition ousted them from power in Afghanistan in 2001.

Mr. Mehsud’s group had held Col. Imam for 10 months. The killing confounded Pakistani military officials. They had long believed the Haqqanis held sway over the myriad groups - including militants from Uzbekistan, Chechnya and the Middle East - operating in North Waziristan.

“We always thought that the Afghan Taliban had a sway over these groups, but Col. Imam’s killing shows that no one is in control of anyone there,” the Pakistani army officer said. “His death was a shock for us.”

Taliban members who spoke to the Associated Press on condition of anonymity because they feared being arrested said Mullah Omar made a personal plea for Col. Imam’s life. Also requesting that Col. Imam’s life be spared was Sirajuddin Haqqani, a key leader of the Haqqani group.

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