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 a Western news organization, Qari Zainuddin told McClatchy this week that he'd 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-totting 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."
Digital Access for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
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 north west 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 he 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.
Around 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.
"Not since the time of Alexander the Great have the Mehsud people suffered such slavery," said one tribal chief who asked not to be identified to protect himself. "We want to stand with Zainuddin but we don't trust the government. Three times in the past, they have made deals with Baitullah Mehsud. Generals have gone and eaten dinner with him. We are scared that the generals will make up with him again."
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.
(EDITORS: BEGIN OPTIOANL TRIM)
A tribal "jirga" or meeting of Mehsud triable chiefs has been called for the coming week to decide whether to back Zainuddin.
"Now people's hearts have come alive," said Zainuddin, who sports a trim beard and speaks softly but with confidence. "Before, no one was willing to speak up against this brutality, these wrong things. Now people are willing to say that Baitullah Mehsud is a beast. God willing, the people are with us."
A vicious round of blood-letting between Zainuddin's fighters and Mehsud's men has already begun, with beheading the favorite mode of execution.
In a significant victory, Zainuddin's militia chased Mehsud's men out of the two major towns that lie close to South Waziristan, Dera Ismail Khan and Tank. Residents of the towns said that they felt liberated from a life of ever-present dread.
Mehsud, the de facto ruler of Waziristan, appears genuinely shaken by Zainuddin's challenge, according to Mehsud tribesmen, and has offered to carve out a separate territory for Zainuddin if he drops the fight.
But Zainuddin has a personal score to settle. His uncle and brother were murdered by Mehsud's men, who also looted and destroyed his family home in South Waziristan.
The Pakistan army is widely believed to be preparing to launch a military offensive against to follow the current operation against a branch of Mehsud's Taliban movement in the Swat valley. Long convoys of army vehicles were visible passing through Dera Ismail Khan and Tank towards South Waziristan on Friday and Saturday, while Makeen in South Waziristan, a village known as a Mehsud stronghold, was pounded by Pakistani jet fighters late on Friday.
Zainuddin would be key to any army offensive in South Waziristan, both to weaken Mehsud — he's beaten Pakistan's vast military three times — and to help track down Mehsud's supporters if his 10,000 heavily armed men melt into the local population.
Zainuddin said he hoped a fight could be avoided if the Mehsud tribe would "throw out" Baitullah Mehsud.
"We work differently to an army. They will do much damage and homes of ordinary people will do destroyed," said Zainuddin. "It is better that we Mehsuds take care of this."
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Follow McClatchy's reknown national security team at Nukes & Spooks