Murder of anti-Baitullah commander a major blow to army operation


LAHORE: The June 23 murder of Qari Zainuddin Mehsud, a Pakistani
Taliban commander and the arch rival of the FBI’s Most Wanted
Commander Baitullah Mehsud in Dera Ismail Khan, has come as a major
blow to the Pakistan Army’s Operation Rah-e-Nijat in the South
Waziristan agency on the Pak-Afghan border, which was launched only
last week in a bid to expand the ongoing military offensive against
the TTP (Tehrik Taliban Pakistan) from Swat Valley to Mehsud’s
mountainous Waziristan stronghold.

Zainuddin, the leader of a rival faction of Mehsud’s tribe inhabiting
the troubled South Waziristan region, was shot dead early Tuesday
morning while he was asleep in his Dera Ismail Khan home by a lone
gunman, who escaped after firing. Baz Mohammad, an aide of the
militant commander who was also wounded in the attack, said that one
of his personal bodyguards had barged into Zainuddin’s bed room after
morning prayers and opened fire. “Zainuddin was martyred on the spot.
I think those companions of Baitullah who had joined us recently after
getting amnesty from us, were behind the assassination”, he said.
Although Qari Zainuddin too had a ruthless past, he had recently
parted ways with Baitullah and accused him for a string of suicide
bomb attacks that killed thousands of innocent Pakistanis. Zainuddin
had further accused Baitullah of masterminding the December 2007
assassination of the former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.

Well placed interior ministry sources in Islamabad conceded that
Zainuddin was being seen by the Pakistani authorities as a key to a
successful army offensive in South Waziristan given the fact that like
Baitullah, he too was a native Mehsud and had been challenging
Baitullah’s leadership in a bid to stage a coup against him. The
murder has shattered the Pakistan army’s hopes of exploiting internal
divisions in South Waziristan against Baitullah and the recently
launched battle against him is now going to be harder. The sources
claimed that Baitullah was genuinely shaken by the challenge being
posed by none other than one of his former associates.

Before being killed, the sources said, Qari Zainuddin had almost
succeeded in his efforts to arrange a jirga meeting of the Mehsud
tribal chiefs in a bid to secure their support for staging a coup
against Baitullah, the chieftain of the Mehsud tribe. It was also for
the first time in recent years that the Pakistani military authorities
had succeeded in their efforts to create divisions within the Mehsud
tribe, after which Operation Rah-e-Nijat (the way of salvation) was
launched in South Waziristan, primarily to target Baitullah Mehsud.
However, Zainuddin was assassinated hardly a week after NWFP Governor
Owais Ghani announced [on June 15 at a press conference in Islamabad] the federal government’s decision to launch a decisive military
operation against Baitullah to eliminate him and dismantle his
network, saying he was the root cause of all evils. The same day,
Zainuddin had announced his support to the anti-Baitullah military
operation, saying that whatever he and his associates were doing in
the name of Islam was not a jehad, and in fact it was terrorism.

“Islam stands for peace, not for terrorism. Baitullah had betrayed
both his religion and his tribesmen. To fight our own country is
wrong. Islam doesn’t give permission to fight against a Muslim
country. This is where we differ. What we are seeing these days –
suicide bombings in mosques, in markets, in hospitals; these are not
allowed in Islam. We don’t agree with them”, said Zainuddin in an
interview to Britain’s McClatchy newspaper on June 15, barely a week
before his murder in Dera Islam Khan by his own guard. Qari
Zainuddin’s strong statements against Baitullah had led to speculation
that the military authorities were encouraging him to stand up to his

Circles close to Qari Zainuddin claimed that after his revolt against
the TTP chief, Baitullah had taken several steps to mend fences with
his former associate and had even offered to carve out a separate
territory for Qari Zainuddin in South Waziristan if he dropped the
fight. However, Zain had rejected the offer since he had a personal
score to settle with Baitullah – his uncle and an ex Guantanamo Bay
inmate Commander Abdullah Mehsud was allegedly killed by the Pakistani
security forces in Zhob Balochistan on a tip off from Baitullah
Mehsud, making him to turn against his former chief.

However, Qari Zainuddin was not the only one to have turned against
Baitullah. He was being backed by Turkistan Khan Bhittani, another
tribal leader, who had since long parted ways with Baitullah. If
Zainuddin was a former Khasadar, Turkistan had been a former member of
the South Waziristan Scouts, a paramilitary wing of the Frontier
Constabulary. Both the pro-government commanders were poised to play a
vital role in the success of the military operation in South
Waziristan against their common foe. But the fugitive TTP chief seems
to have struck first as usual, although Interior Minister Rehman Malik
has stated that Qari Zainuddin seems to have been assassinated by one
of his own comrades, Gulbadin Mehsud from Makeen, who made good his

In fact, the military action against Baitullah Mehsud was launched
even before a formal announcement was made about it on June 15. The
Pakistan Air Force used jet-fighters to bomb his positions in Makeen,
Ladha and Kotki area in South Waziristan on June 13 while the
long-range artillery guns of the Pakistan Army deployed in Razmak in
North Waziristan shelled his strongholds the same day. However, as the
Governor NWFP made an official announcement to launch the
anti-Baitullah operation in South Waziristan, Chief of Army Staff
General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani said on June 16 that the head of the
Taliban in Pakistan must be eliminated.

“Baitullah has a hand in virtually every major terrorist attack in
Pakistan and he is not fighting for Islam”, he said. It was, perhaps,
the first significant indication from the military leadership that the
establishment – long derided for avoiding taking the chief of
Pakistani Taliban head-on – had had enough. As things stand, the
battle lines seem to have been drawn once again in South Waziristan
between the military and the militants led by Baitullah. The fugitive
ameer of the Pakistani Taliban, a foe-turned-friend-turned-foe of the
Pakistani establishment, is today a marked man by the American and the
Pakistan security forces and his mountainous demesne in South
Waziristan is under frequent aerial attacks by the Pakistani fighter
jets and the Afghanistan-based US drones, in a desperate a bid to hunt
him down..

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