MAKEEN, Pakistan — Pakistani Taliban fighters are committed to helping the fight in Afghanistan and consider Barack Obama their "No 1 enemy," a top commander said amid uncertainty Sunday about whether a new leader has been appointed to head the movement.
Waliur Rehman made the remarks in an interview with the Associated Press at a time of intense speculation over the next leader of the al-Qaida-allied group. A CIA missile strike on Aug. 5 is believed to have killed former chief Baitullah Mehsud. Rehman, a cousin of Baitullah, is seen as a strong candidate for the post.
Speaking Saturday – before aides to another Taliban commander said a second contender, Hakimullah Mehsud, had been appointed the next chief – Rehman said Baitullah had given him full control over the network and that a new leader "would be chosen within five days."
He did not refer to the claim that Hakimullah had become the leader – an omission that will add to doubts about whether that appointment had been agreed by all the top Taliban members. It will also likely be taken as a further sign the movement and its up to 25,000 fighters remain split over the succession.
Rehman met the AP in a forest near Makeen village in the heart of the semiautonomous lands close to the Afghan border where al-Qaida and the Taliban hold sway. Looking healthy and dressed in clean, ironed clothes, he was accompanied by five armed guards.
American officials are watching closely to see who succeeds Baitullah, in particular whether the new leader will direct more fighters across the border where U.S. and NATO forces are facing soaring attacks by insurgents. Baitullah was believed to have mainly concentrated on attacking Pakistani targets.
"We are with Afghan Taliban. We will keep on helping them until America and its allies are expelled," he said, adding this did not mean an end to attacks in Pakistan. "American President Obama and his allies are our enemy No 1," he said. "We will sacrifices our bodies, hearts and money to fight them."
Like most other members of the Taliban network, he insisted Baitullah was alive but sick, hence the need for a new chief. U.S. and Pakistani officials are almost certain he is dead, especially since the Taliban have provided no proof he is alive.
Two close aides to another commander, Maulvi Faqir Mohammad, told The Associated Press on Saturday a 42-member Taliban council, or shura, had appointed Hakimullah their new leader in an unanimous decision on Friday.
"Now all these talks of differences should end," said one of the aides, Bakht Zada. "There have not been any differences ever."
Mohammed Amir Rana, an expert on Pakistani militant groups, said he believed the Taliban had not agreed on a replacement.
"Maulvi Faqir Mohammad is trying to manipulate the race by announcing to the press that Hakimullah is the head," he said. "Until now there is no consensus," he said, adding that supporters of Waliur Rehman, did not accept him.
Interior Minister Rehman Malik said the government had received intelligence reports about Hakimullah's appointment "as the chief terrorist" but there was no official confirmation. The Dawn newspaper quoted one unidentified intelligence officer as saying the announcement "was a ruse" as part of the ongoing power struggle.
Earlier this month, Malik had claimed Rehman and Hakimullah had been killed in a shootout between rival factions over who should take over the Taliban and its arms and cash.
"There was no truth in those claims of mine or his death," Rehman said. "It is futile propaganda by enemies."
Since Aug. 5, Pakistani officials have been eager to portray the Taliban as in disarray, saying commanders and the rank-and-file were fighting among themselves. At one point, Mohammad – who comes from a different part of the tribal region – claimed to have taken over the leadership.
Hakimullah comes from the same tribe as Baitullah and had been seen as a likely replacement.
As military chief of Baitullah's Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, or Pakistani Taliban Movement, Hakimullah commanded three tribal regions and had a reputation as Baitullah's most ruthless deputy. He first appeared in public to journalists in November 2008, when he offered to take reporters on a ride in a U.S. Humvee taken from a supply truck heading to Afghanistan.
Authorities say he was behind threats to foreign embassies in Islamabad, and there was a 10 million rupee ($120,000) bounty on his head. Hakimullah claimed responsibility for the June 9 bombing of the Pearl Continental hotel in the northwestern city of Peshawar, and the attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore earlier this year.
Rehamn was among Baitullah's closest advisers and deputies. Mehsud reportedly said during a shura that Rehman should be his successor if something happened to him.
Associated Press writer Chris Brummitt contributed to this report.