Confusion prevails over Taliban leadership

Aug. 25, 2009 at 3:25 PM
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ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Aug. 24 (UPI) -- If the assertions of the Pakistani Taliban are right, Hakeemullah Mehsud is the new leader of the militant group, succeeding his dreaded predecessor Baitullah Mehsud.

But the Pakistani government hasn't bought the weekend announcement from the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan about Hakeemullah's elevation by the 42-member Taliban council, saying both Hakeemullah and Baitullah are dead.

The official version is that the militant group is seeking to divert public attention while still being embroiled in infighting for leadership and control of the group's huge assets including cash and weaponry.

Pakistani intelligence officials say the young Hakeemullah, who had been Baitullah's chauffeur, died in a shootout with a rival soon after his boss's death, Pakistan's English-language daily Dawn reported.

But the report also said the government has not been able to produce convincing evidence about the deaths of either man.

If Hakeemullah is alive and is the new militant leader as announced, he is going to need whatever credentials and strengths he has to rightfully inherit the legacy of Baitullah, who made the Taliban a deadly fighting force of more than 20,000 with a large cadre of suicide bombers. Baitullah's long career in terrorism included the alleged December 2007 assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.

Americans and the Pakistani government believe Baitullah died in the Aug. 5 drone attack in the South Waziristan tribal region, the country's Taliban stronghold. The militant group, however, insists their leader is only ill and wanted to find a successor while still alive.

The handover of power to Hakeemullah did not, however, appear as smooth as announced. Only two days earlier, Maulvi Faqir Mohammad, another militant commander, had anointed himself acting successor to Baitullah, while insisting the leader was alive but ill.

But then it was Mohammad who announced Hakeemullah's appointment to the top post.

"I am stepping down as leader of the Tehrik-e-Taliban in the larger interest of the movement," Dawn quoted Mohammad as telling reporters on telephone from an undisclosed location, adding, "I am the most senior leader of the (group) after Baitullah and the sacrifices I rendered for it are no less. However, due to some unavoidable reasons, I am stepping down. There is no factionalism within the TTP now."

Pakistan's Daily Times quoted analysts as saying with the announcement of Hakeemullah's promotion, the Taliban is gradually moving toward formally acknowledging Baitullah's demise.

CNN, quoting another Taliban leader, said Mohammad had been tapped as Hakeemullah's deputy, and Hazem Tariq named the group's new spokesman.

Separately, Pakistani Interior Minister Rehman Malik, responding to reports of Hakeemullah's elevation, said whoever heads the TTP will be considered a terrorist.

In addition to the nemesis of the Pakistani government and the threat of drone attacks, the man identified as Hakeemullah may have to contend with factionalism within his own group. Earlier this month it was reported at least 21 militants died in clashes between two Taliban groups, both loyal to the new leader, to gain control of a check post.

Hakeemullah, a commander with supporters in the Orakzai, Khyber and Kurram agencies, reportedly made his mark with a number of attacks including on convoys transporting supplies across the border to Afghanistan for NATO-led troops.

No matter who leads the terrorist group, The Nation newspaper said the Pakistani Taliban, "responsible for carrying out a series of deadly terrorist attacks, killing hundreds of innocent Pakistanis, is fast crumbling down."

A Daily Time editorial said Hakeemullah comes across as a rash swashbuckling fighter "who would rather kill than sit down and talk" and that he is violently sectarian with expertise in producing suicide bombers.

If Hakeemullah is "not able to lay his hands on the full multibillion treasure trove left behind by Baitullah, Pakistan may expect an increase in criminal violence," the editorial said, but added the beefed-up Pakistani army and the security agencies will have "a better chance of taking" him out or at least prevent his mischief from escalating.

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