Airstrikes believed to be carried out by U.S. predator drones killed dozens of militants Tuesday in Pakistan and injured scores more. The attacks were the deadliest since the U.S. deployed its remotely guided missiles to target the Taliban leadership dug into Pakistan's mountainous border with Afghanistan.
Details of the assault on the remote tribal area of South Waziristan known as Pakistan's badlands are still emerging. Local media report that dozens of militants were killed when three drone missiles were fired on Taliban fighters as they gathered for the funeral of fellow militants. Those fighters had been killed earlier in a separate drone attack.
The bloody day represents the first drone strikes on the hometown base of Baitullah Mehsud, Pakistan's Public Enemy No. 1.
The Pakistan Taliban leader, whom the U.S. blames for the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, has unleashed terrorist attacks that have claimed the lives of many civilians. And Mehsud's training camp in South Waziristan is reported to produce suicide vests and the recruits to wear them. He is said to have some 1,500 battle-hardened fighters.
Retired Brig. Mahmood Shah says the head of the Mehsud tribe has consolidated power in the lawless tribal area by avoiding battle when he is weak and fighting only when he is strong.
"He's a very clever chap," Shah adds. "You must also keep in mind that Baitullah Mehsud is no longer a Mehsud. He is representing al-Qaida. And you have some elements of al-Qaida also behind him."
A rival who dared to set up a competing faction against Baitullah Mehsud was murdered Tuesday. Qari Zainuddin Mehsud was gunned down by his bodyguard following dawn prayers. The young challenger was urging men to defect from Mehsud, whom he condemned for killing civilians. Qari Zainuddin's killing is seen as part of the enmity that governs the tribal areas.
Defense analyst Khalid Aziz says the animosities among the Mehsud clan are intensifying. He says that benefits the government "because it divides the Mehsuds; now they'll have rivalry amongst themselves."
Others say the assassination of Zainuddin represents a setback for Islamabad. It adds to Baitullah's reputation for ruthlessness — he is accused of the murder.
Author Ahmed Rashed says it is likely to discourage opponents of Baitullah Mehsud from publicly opposing him and siding with the government in South Waziristan.
"The key to this is that you have to protect these people," Rashed says. "If you can't give them protection, they are not going to come to your side and they are not going to fight for you."
As Baitullah Mehsud hunts his rivals, the Pakistani army hunts him. Security forces are squeezing his stronghold, cutting off the main routes leading to his bases and pounding them from the air. The military has promised a major offensive against what it calls the epicenter of militancy in South Waziristan.
The pre-positioning of the forces have been done," says Major Gen. Athar Abbas, an army spokesman. "We are in the preliminary phases of the operation. It's part of the preparatory maneuver."
As the army's two-month offensive against the Taliban in nearby Swat Valley winds down, operations in South Waziristan are expected to step up. They will be closely watched in Washington.
The United States would like the area as flushed of Taliban as possible in advance of a new deployment of American troops just over the border in Afghanistan later this year.
Defense analyst Khalid Aziz believes the Pakistani army and the U.S. are working in concert along the border, but he says Pakistan is also hitting Waziristan now because of fresh intelligence "that something else is cooking — something big." He says the Pakistani army is moving to pre-empt whatever Baitullah Mehsud may be planning.