Pakistan's Most Wanted Warlord

Baitullah Mehsud is blamed for suicide bombings in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Mourners gather around the coffin of a Pakistani soldier killed in the Waziristan region.

Mourners gather around the coffin of a Pakistani soldier killed in the Waziristan region.

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Some U.S. officials hope that Mehsud may finally be overreaching with his frontal assault on the Pakistani government. "The arrogance of his subsequent combat operations may be a heck of an opportunity for the Pakistanis to really go after him," says Dell Dailey, a retired lieutenant general who serves now as the State Department's counterterrorism coordinator.

But Mehsud has become deeply entrenched in Waziristan. The immediate source of his power is a corps of several hundred foreign fighters, mostly Uzbeks and other Central Asians, whom he commands. Along with his tribal followers, Mehsud is estimated to command several thousand armed militiamen, although he has claimed higher numbers.

Either way, Mehsud has established himself as someone locals respect, as well as fear. "He is no doubt the most influential and powerful person of South and North Waziristan," says Barki, the tribal chief. "He has restored law and order in the area. But people also believe that there are many bad people in his militia."

Pakistani forces have tried to strike back at Mehsud and his followers, but the most visible results have been significant casualties on the government side. With the powerful traditions of tribal loyalty, Mehsud also appears to have benefited from the local reaction to the government's assault on him. "Those who are not supporters of Osama [bin Laden] or Baitullah, even they have been forced by the indiscriminate military operations to harbor sympathies for them," says Momin Khan, the owner of a small trucking company in South Waziristan.

Still, Mehsud is a "ferocious enforcer" of his harsh interpretation of Islamic law, according to one U.S. intelligence official, and his zealotry has begun to alienate many locals. "He has enforced his own rules in the area binding men not to shave their beards," says Naseeb Khan, who runs a small public telephone office in Wana, the capital of South Waziristan. "Playing music and watching videos are against the law here."

Still, Khan adds that if he needs to settle any kind of legal issue, he will go to Mehsud and not the local courts. Says Khan, "He is the law here."