DERA ISMAIL KHAN, Pakistan – A new Islamic militia leader has emerged in Pakistan to openly challenge al-Qaida-affiliated warlord Baitullah Mehsud for the first time from within his own tribe, marking the start of a bloody confrontation in the wild Waziristan region that could have profound consequences for both Pakistan and the West.
In his first interview with Western news reporters, Qari Zainuddin vowed last week to wipe out Mehsud and rescue Pakistan from a reign of terror that has pushed the nuclear-armed U.S. ally toward collapse.
Zainuddin charged that Mehsud, who is the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, had betrayed both his Muslim religion and the Mehsud tribe of his native South Waziristan, which borders Afghanistan.
“To fight our own country is wrong,” said Zainuddin, in an interview given in a hideout on the edge of South Waziristan, surrounded by masked Kalashnikov-toting followers. “Islam doesn’t give permission to fight against a Muslim country. This is where we differ. What we’re seeing these days, these bombings in mosques, in markets, in hospitals; these are not allowed in Islam. We don’t agree with them.”
But victory will not mean any lessening of efforts to expel Westerners from neighboring Afghanistan, Zainuddin said. He pledged to send his forces into Afghanistan once Mehsud is vanquished.
“The whole Muslim world should come together because all infidels have come together against Islam. Whether it is Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, Chechnya, Muslims must protect ourselves,” said Zainuddin, who has the title of “Qari,” or someone who has memorized the entire Koran. “The problem is that we cannot go to Afghanistan these days because we have had to deal with Baitullah.”
Zainuddin, who described himself as “real” Taliban, reportedly has gathered as many as 3,000 armed followers and is being secretly backed by the Pakistan state against Mehsud’s, who has a $5 million U.S. bounty on his head as a “key al-Qaida facilitator.” Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, are thought likely to be hiding in the South Waziristan region controlled by the Mehsud tribe.
A cult of throat-slitting and suicide bombing marks Mehsud’s grim rule. His group has staged spectacular terrorist attacks across Pakistan and has an extremist network that spans the tribal borderland that runs along the Afghan border and reaches deep into the country.
On Saturday, Mehsud’s commanders claimed responsibility for last week’s devastating bombing of a luxury hotel in the northwest city of Peshawar and the assassination of a prominent anti-Taliban cleric in the eastern city of Lahore.
Many believe that Mehsud can be defeated only by a member of his own clan. Zainuddin is a Mehsud and also used to be part of Mehsud’s network, giving him an intimate knowledge of its working and its members, a knowledge that the Pakistan army lacks.
About a dozen Mehsud tribal chiefs, in separate meetings, told McClatchy that they supported Zainuddin but were afraid to speak publicly. Their fears were compounded by a deep suspicion of the Pakistani state and especially the army, which has made clandestine deals with Mehsud in the past.
Zainuddin’s private militia includes relatives of Mehsud’s victims as well of some of Mehsud’s own men who, Zainuddin said, are deserting. A powerful armed faction, known as the Turkistan group, which lives on the edge of South Waziristan around the town of Jandola, has already backed Zainuddin and currently provides much of his muscle, according to local tribesmen.