ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Pakistan's extremist Taliban movement acknowledged Tuesday that its leader, Baitullah Mehsud, had died in the aftermath of a U.S. drone missile attack early this month and confirmed that two men would replace him.
Hakimullah Mehsud, a violent young jihadist with links to al Qaida, will be in nominal control but his rival, Waliur Rehman, will take charge of Waziristan, a vital region for the militant movement. Rehman, in a telephone interview Tuesday with reporters, threatened attacks against the West and called President Barack Obama "our foremost enemy."
The Pakistani Taliban provides sanctuary for al Qaida and the Afghan insurgents in Pakistan's lawless tribal area, and its leadership and goals will affect international forces in Afghanistan and terror plots against Western targets.
The militant group sustained heavy losses in late April following the launch of a U.S.-backed Pakistani army operation, and the death of Baitullah Mehsud appeared to leave it in disarray. Now Pakistan and the United States will be watching to see if new leadership can stabilize the Pakistani Taliban.
Both of the top contenders for the leadership said Baitullah had succumbed to his injuries Sunday, not on Aug. 5, when a U.S. missile struck a house in South Waziristan, his native region, as U.S. and Pakistani intelligence officials had thought.
The admission came after weeks of denials from militants that Baitullah, who brought together 13 extremist groups in the country's northwest to form Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan in December 2007, had been eliminated.
On the surface, the power struggle to replace Baitullah appears to have been won by Hakimullah, a trigger-happy tribesman with the reputation of a thug. But his rival, Rehman, who was closer to Baitullah and is regarded as much less brutal than Hakimullah, was given charge of the all-important Waziristan region.
"The real power is in Waziristan, and Waliur Rehman will run things there," said Saifullah Mahsud, an analyst at the FATA Research Center, an independent think tank in Islamabad. "It's a clever compromise formula. Waliur Rehman has the real power."
Remote, mountainous Waziristan is a potential hiding place for Osama bin Laden and a safe haven for jihadists from around the world.
According to a tribesman in South Waziristan, who could not be named for his own safety, Hakimullah, thought to be just 28, had threatened to form a breakaway group if he wasn't given the title of leader.
"In order to avoid bloodshed, Waliur Rehman has been forced by the Afghan side to agree. He's a decent, respected guy," said the tribesman.
He added that the dispute was mediated by a representative of Mullah Omar, founder of the Afghan Taliban, and Sirajuddin Haqqani, the son of veteran Afghan jihadist Jalaluddin Haqqani. The Pakistani Taliban regards its older Afghan counterpart as its mentor, and the Haqqani network in particular wields considerable influence over the Afghan branch.
Hakimullah could be the choice of al Qaida, analysts say, as he is linked closely to two terrorist groups banned in Pakistan — Sipah-e-Sahaba and its even more extreme offshoot, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi — that now take their lead from bin Laden.
Hakimullah formerly belonged to Sipah-e-Sahaba. Lashkar-e-Jhangvi is regarded as a key al Qaida facilitator in Pakistan and played a role in many of the bombings and other attacks that have rocked the country over the last two years, including the assault on the visiting Sri Lankan cricket team earlier this year.
Given the rivalry between Rehman, who is more popular in South Waziristan, and Hakimullah, analysts think that the power struggle could erupt again. According to an unconfirmed report, denied by the Taliban, the rivalry had led to a gun battle earlier this month in which both were injured. Until Tuesday, many were convinced that Hakimullah had died in that clash.
The pair appeared to be sitting together as they called select local journalists Tuesday evening, after the end of the Ramadan fast, as they passed the phone between them, according to one person who spoke to both.
"There are no differences between the various Taliban factions, and we are all united," Rehman told reporters from an undisclosed location.
Rehman, who has a religious education, unlike Hakimullah, hit out at the West, even threatening attacks.
"Obama is our foremost enemy and our workers are raring to face him," Rehman said. "Our workers cherish death more than the life and London, Paris and New York are not far away from them."
The Pakistani Taliban has no known capacity to mount attacks in the West.
Speaking before the announcement on the Taliban leadership, Pakistan's interior minister, Rehman Malik, was confident that the extremist movement was sinking.
"They cannot hide," Malik said. "We are close to their jugular vein. Now the people have turned against them."
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Follow national security issues at McClatchy's Nukes & Spooks.
McClatchy Newspapers 2009