By Karin Brulliard and Haq Nawaz Khan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, February 11, 2010; A16
ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN -- After weeks of speculation, Pakistani officials asserted definitively Wednesday that the leader of the Pakistani Taliban had been killed.
A military intelligence official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said rumors of Hakimullah Mehsud's death were "100 percent" true. That echoed a comment made by Interior Minister Rehman Malik to the Associated Press. The government had not previously corroborated reports of the militant chief's death.
U.S. and Pakistani officials believe Mehsud was wounded Jan. 14 by a U.S. missile strike in North Waziristan, a section of the remote mountain area bordering Afghanistan. Conjecture about his fate deepened this week, as some Taliban fighters told Pakistani media that Mehsud had been killed and a Taliban spokesman continued to deny it.
Analysts disagree about whether Mehsud's death would cripple the Taliban, which has carried out increasingly bloody attacks inside Pakistan. But Pakistani intelligence officials said this week that Mehsud's successor -- who has not yet been named -- would likely continue in the same vein.
"It doesn't matter. Whoever it would be would try to prove himself more ruthless, more vicious, and will try to exact revenge," the intelligence official said, adding that security officials were bracing for a new round of attacks.
Mehsud assumed leadership of the Pakistani Taliban after his predecessor was killed by a U.S. drone strike in August. A lull in violence followed, but the militants regrouped in October to launch a string of spectacular assaults on civilians and Pakistan's powerful security agencies.
The pace of attacks, while slower this year, has kept up. On Wednesday, a suicide bomber targeting a tribal police force in Khyber Agency, part of the tribal areas, killed at least 17 people.
The Pakistani officials offered no details about Mehsud's death, and analysts cautioned that proof would come only from the Taliban itself.
No matter Mehsud's condition, the mixed messages from the Taliban seemed to demonstrate rifts within an insurgent coalition that, although concentrated in the tribal areas near Afghanistan, spans tribes and militant groups.
Pressure from U.S. drone attacks and Pakistan's military has isolated militant factions from one another, one Taliban member said in an interview. The Pakistani army invaded the Taliban's base of South Waziristan in October, scattering fighters, and is battling insurgents in other parts of the tribal areas.
"Taliban fighters are desperate, and now it is very hard for us to communicate," the militant, who lives in the Orakzai Agency of the tribal areas, said in a telephone interview. "Some of our friends have already distanced themselves from the mainstream organization."
That division has led to a power struggle, the Taliban member said. Among those in contention for Mehsud's position, according to close observers of the group, are Wali-ur-Rehman, a top South Waziristan commander, and Qarimullah Hussain, a suicide bombing expert with ties to al-Qaeda. There is speculation, however, that Hussain was killed by the same missile that struck Mehsud in January.
Khan, a special correspondent, reported from Peshawar, Pakistan.