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U.S . Sees Possible Death Of Taliban Chief Slowing Group

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- The CIA missile strike thought to have killed Pakistan's Taliban leader may set the movement back temporarily and strengthen intelligence cooperation between the United States and Pakistan after years of mistrust.

But U.S. officials said the death of Baitullah Mehsud, if confirmed, was unlikely to cripple the Taliban in Pakistan, and played down the impact on U.S. efforts to stem the group's resurgence in neighboring Afghanistan.

Most of Mehsud's focus has been on attacking Pakistan's government and security forces.

"We're under no illusions," said a U.S. counterterrorism official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "He's got thousands of people in his network. No one is thinking they are down-and-out for good."

The hunt for Mehsud, an ally of Al-Qaeda, has been a top priority of both the U.S. and Pakistani governments. Washington put a $5 million bounty on his head and intelligence agencies stepped up efforts to track his movements.

Diplomats said his death would mark a coup for Islamabad. It could also give an important psychological boost to the U.S. drive, expanded under President Barack Obama, against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.

"If the reports of...Mehsud's death are correct, there is no doubt that the Pakistani people are safer as a result of it," said White House spokesman Robert Gibbs. He said the operation demonstrated the extent of U.S.-Pakistani cooperation against militants.

Underscoring the continued threat, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said groups like the Taliban in Pakistan can "regenerate another leader" to replace Mehsud. "I don't want to make more than one should of a single individual," Whitman said.

Two U.S. officials said Washington had "strong indications" Mehsud was killed along with his wife and bodyguards in a missile attack two days ago in a remote area in Pakistan's South Waziristan tribal region bordering eastern Afghanistan.

But they said the U.S. government was still awaiting "final confirmation." Gibbs said that process could take "many weeks."