By Hafiz Wazir
WANA, Pakistan | Thu Jan 3, 2013 6:20am EST
(Reuters) - A U.S. drone strike killed a key Taliban commander, his deputy and eight others in northwest Pakistan, intelligence sources and tribal leaders said Thursday, deaths that could substantially alter the power balance in the Taliban heartland of Waziristan.
Maulvi Nazir Wazir, also known as Mullah Nazir, was killed on Wednesday night when missiles struck a mud house in South Waziristan, near the Afghan border, intelligence sources and residents said.
He had survived at least one previous drone attack and was wounded weeks earlier in a bomb attack believed to have been launched by Taliban rivals.
His key commanders and his deputy, Ratta Khan, were also killed in the attack at Angoor Adda, near the provincial capital of Wana, sources said.
Nazir had expelled foreign militants from his area, favored attacking American forces in Afghanistan and had signed non-aggression pacts with the Pakistani military in 2007 in 2009. That put him at odds with some other Pakistan Taliban commanders, but earned him a reputation as a "good" Taliban among some in the Pakistan military.
Nazir's successor was announced in front of a crowd of thousands at his funeral, a witness said. People will be watching closely to see if fellow Wazir tribesman Salahud Din Ayubi continues with Nazir's policies.
The military has a large base in Wana, where Nazir and his men were based. Nazir presided over an uneasy peace between the militants and the army there, but the truce was endangered by the military's alliance with the United States and drone strikes, a military officer said recently.
"The (drone) program is making things very difficult for us. Nazir is the sole remaining major militant leader willing to be an ally," he said.
"If he decides to side with (Pakistan Taliban leader) Hakimullah, thousands of fighters will come to the frontlines against the Pakistani military. It is in our interest to keep him neutral, if not on our side, because then we can direct our resources against anti-state militants with much greater efficiency."