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Page last updated at 10:48 GMT, Thursday, 25 June 2009 11:48 UK

A very strange Taliban burial

By Syed Shoaib Hasan
BBC News, Dera Ismail Khan

Mourner at Qari Zain's funeral
Qari Zain was shot dead by one of his own bodyguards after morning prayers

Tribal leader and Taliban breakaway commander Qari Zainuddin Mehsud was killed earlier this week. His funeral took place in Dera Ismail Khan in north-west Pakistan.

It was as unlikely a situation as one is likely to find - even in Pakistan.

The burial of a Taliban commander in a Shia graveyard while Pakistan's armed forces provide security for his militants.

A small number of people - his men and journalists - stood for nearly an hour in the debilitating heat of Dera Ismail Khan as the last rites were performed.

Security personnel in official vehicles and armoured carriers stood in silent vigil as usually stoic Taliban militants broke down in tears.

The setting was the inglorious and sombre funeral of Qari Zainuddin Mehsud.

He had recently been catapulted into the position of pretender for the throne of Baitullah Mehsud, the most powerful Taliban commander in Pakistan.

Qari Zain, as he was known, was gunned down by one of his own bodyguards after morning prayers on Tuesday.

A day earlier, the BBC had arranged to have a chat with him about his decision to take on Baitullah.

But fate apparently had other designs for the young Taliban commander.

Rivalry

He had recently come out publicly denouncing Baitullah as being an enemy of Islam and Pakistan.

Turkestan Bhittani
Turkestan Bhittani was allied to the slain Mehsud tribal leader.

Qari Zain had also declared a jihad against Baitullah Mehsud and formed a pro-government Taliban group called the Abdullah Mehsud group.

Abdullah Mehsud, a cousin of Qari Zain, was one of Pakistan's earliest Taliban commanders who advocated taking the fight to Nato forces from Pakistani territory.

He was killed by Pakistani security forces in Baluchistan, allegedly on information provided by Baitullah Mehsud.

Since Abdullah's death, Qari Zain had been building up a resistance to Baitullah's control within the Mehsud tribe.

He was also closely allied to Turkestan Bhittani, leader of the Bhittani tribe and Baitullah's main rival.

In recent times, both men have been aided by Pakistan's security establishment - to which Baitullah Mehsud now represents a clear and present danger.

But that plan has suffered a setback with Qari Zain's death.

No locals

His funeral was delayed as several concerns had to be addressed.

While his family was keen on his burial in his native village in South Waziristan, Pakistan's intelligence was understandably reluctant.

There was a very real possibility of his body being found hanging from a tree in South Waziristan
Local journalist

After having invested in Qari Zain's appeal as an alternative, they stood to be made a laughing stock with the Taliban's penchant for digging up the bodies of their rivals.

"Qari Zain had been denounced in the strongest of terms by Baitullah's men," remarked a local journalist in Dera Ismail Khan.

"There was a very real possibility of his body being found hanging from a tree in South Waziristan."

For this reason, the BBC had a tough job on Tuesday working out where and when the funeral would take place.

Reports that his body was being flown to South Waziristan were discovered to be false.

Instead it was learnt that his family was being flown in from that region to attend the funeral on Wednesday.

The timing and venue were kept a secret till a few hours before the event.

Banner proclaiming Qari Zain's war on Baitullah Mehsud
The details of Qari Zain's funeral were a closely guarded secret

Finally, as the searing heat continued in Dera Ismail Khan, we made our way to the locality of Madina city.

A Shia-dominated neighbourhood was a strange setting for a Taliban funeral. The Taliban consider the Shia sect to be the same as non-Muslims or even worse.

But these "government Taliban" had apparently set up shop in the heart of this area.

As we drove through the narrow streets, two things stood out starkly.

The eerie lack of locals and the overwhelming presence of armed men on every corner.

It was the first time I have seen security personnel and Taliban militants manning checkpoints together.

As we parked our car outside the house where Qari Zain was killed, a Taliban militant told us that we should first go to the graveyard.

We immediately took off - through side streets.

These led to fields of maize located behind the houses. Crossing them we came to the graveyard, a resting place for mostly Shia and some Christian remains.

That perhaps contributed to the choice.

'Jihad continues'

It also said a lot about claims by the security forces of having taken the fight to Baitullah Mehsud. The airtight security managed to keep away any potential suicide bombers as well as locals and tribesmen.

"It would have been a poor crowd anyway with one side considering him a heretic and the other a traitor," said another journalist acidly.

For that is indeed how Qari Zain's siding with the government is seen by many of his fellow tribesmen.

The heavy irony of the situation was also not lost on those present.

That the only option for security forces to protect the body of their champion was to bury it in such a manner speaks volumes about which way the battle is going.

Having failed utterly to prevent his assassination, the only way they could protect his remains was to keep them as far away from South Waziristan as possible.

Soon after the funeral, militants loyal to the dead Taliban commander gathered at the house where he was killed.

A short ceremony ensued to appoint his brother Misabhuddin as the new chief.

Speaking to the BBC, he said he would continue his brother's mission and not rest till Baitullah was dead.

"The operation in South Waziristan is the government's right and those caught up in the fighting are all terrorists," Misabhuddin said.

But he was quite clear on another point as well:

"Jihad against America and its allies in Afghanistan would continue as well."

But was not the point of the operation in South Waziristan to stop such activities? Apparently not, as far as Misabhuddin is concerned.

"Pakistan's government only has problems with the foreign militants in the area. They have always supported us in the jihad in Afghanistan."



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