ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — One of his own guards shot and killed the leading challenger to Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud Tuesday, dealing a major blow to the Pakistani's government's efforts to crush the country's Islamic insurgency.
Qari Zainuddin, 30, a member of the Taliban leader's Mehsud tribe, was shot he slept at his headquarters Tuesday morning in Dera Ismail Khan, a town on the edge of the extremist-controlled South Waziristan region, according to Baaz Muhammad, a follower of Zainuddin who was with him when he was shot and wounded in the attack.
In an interview with McClatchy earlier this month, Zainuddin vowed to foment a tribal uprising against Mehsud, who's affiliated with al Qaida, and said he'd already gathered 3,000 armed supporters to fight him.
"It is better that we Mehsuds take care of this," he said, saying that a military operation would destroy the homes of ordinary people and cost innocent lives.
Nevertheless, after Zainuddin's assassination, the U.S. launched two aerial drone attacks in South Waziristan, the first against a remote area controlled by Mehsud and the second on the funeral of those killed in the first attack.
At least 45 people were killed at the funeral, according to reports. A local security official, who couldn't be identified because he wasn't authorized to speak to the media put the figure at more than 60 — and said that half of the dead were civilians. Local villagers, not just militants, attend funerals of Taliban.
Waziristan, which borders Afghanistan, is part of Pakistan's lawless tribal area, where U.S. forces have mounted some 60 drone attacks against suspected militants since early last year, but bombing a funeral is unusual and may be unprecedented. Local media reports said a local commander named Sangeen, originally from Afghanistan, was among the dead.
According to eyewitness Baaz Muhammad, the guard who killed Zainuddin almost certainly was working for Mehsud. Speaking to Pakistani television from a hospital bed, Muhammad said that a purported Mehsud defector who recently joined their ranks was the killer.
Mehsud and his followers have turned his South Waziristan homeland into a stronghold for the Taliban and al Qaida and a possible hiding place for Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al Zawahiri. Mehsud is Pakistan's public enemy No. 1, accused of being behind the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in December 2007 and a long list of bombings of hotels, mosques, hospitals and funeral processions.
The Pakistani army, which said this month that it's in the "preliminary stages" of a larger offensive against Mehsud in South Waziristan, had hoped that Zainuddin would weaken the warlord or open a second front against him.
Past army anti-Taliban operations in North and South Waziristan ended in peace deals that left the militants intact, and Mehsud may have feared Zainuddin more than he feared the Pakistani army. Zainuddin was an opponent from within who used to be part of Mehsud's network, giving him intimate knowledge of its workings and personnel.
For the first time since Mehsud took command of the main group of Pakistani Taliban in 2005, Zainuddin's stance had given others the courage to speak up. Mehsud's rule has been brutal: His followers specialize in slitting people's throats and staging suicide bombings. He slaughtered hundreds of traditional tribal elders in his rise to power, removing those who could lead resistance and terrifying the rest into submission.
At the secret compound where the McClatchy interview took place, a couple of dozen armed guards protected Zainuddin behind high walls, but the security wasn't as strong as might be expected for someone who'd taken on so violent an enemy.
Zainuddin's death raised awkward questions for the Pakistani government, which was accused of not protecting Zainuddin and the tribal elders Mehsud had killed.
"The death of 600 or 700 (elders) has seriously shaken the confidence of the people in the government," said Ayaz Wazir, an analyst based in Islamabad who's a tribal elder from Waziristan. "The government should take steps to restore the trust of the people."
In an innovation that seems likely to have been inspired by al Qaida, Mehsud broke off from the mainstream Taliban movement, which includes both Afghans and Pakistanis and is focused on Afghanistan, and organized a branch based in South Waziristan aimed against Pakistan, taking over territory in the northwest and staging terrorist attacks across the nation.
Zainuddin opposed this reorientation from Afghanistan to Pakistan. "To fight our own country is wrong," he'd told McClatchy. "Islam doesn't give permission to fight against a Muslim country. This is where we differ (with Baitullah Mehsud). What we're seeing these days, these bombings . . . . are not allowed in Islam."
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY