U.S. and Kurds defeat al-Qaida offshoot

By NICHOLAS M. HORROCK, UPI Chief White House Correspondent   |   March 30, 2003 at 3:23 PM
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ANKARA, Turkey, March 30 (UPI) -- Kurdish militia, assisted by U.S. Special Forces, captured two strongholds of the allegedly Al-Qaida linked Ansar al-Islam group in northern Iraq, according to reports in Turkey.

The news was confirmed by U.S. officials Sunday.

The authoritative Turkish Daily News quoted Patriotic Union of Kurdistan leader Jalal Talbani as saying that his forces had captured two strongholds in the Zagros Mountains that separate Iraq from Iran, Sargat and Kharfani, Friday and "were on the verge of total victory" over the group.

In an interview with Ilnur Cevik, publisher and editor of the Daily News, Talabani said that the PUK militia, the Peshmergas, opened up an all-out offensive against the alleged terrorist group after three days of U.S. missile attacks called in on Ansar mountain redoubts.

A British Broadcasting Corp. news report showed pictures early Saturday of Peshmergas entering one of the villages and identifying some of the people pictured as members of U.S. special forces.

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told "Fox News Sunday" that one of the captured hideouts was very extensive.

"There were dozens of sites, a lot of underground tunnels, a lot of bunkers, and we have destroyed a major portion of it. We've killed a large number of terrorists. We know that ... they were developing toxins and poisons in that area. We know that al Qaeda was connected to it... We also know that some time earlier a great many trucks went in there and moved a lot of people out, and a lot of things out. So, we're not certain what we'll find, but we should know more in the next three days..."

Other PUK officials told United Press International last month the special forces were in the area, both preparing for arrival of other U.S. troops and assisting the battle with the Ansar.

The Ansar al-Islam is a group of 700 Muslim extremists allegedly supported by Saddam Hussein and with connections to al-Qaida. Kurdish and U.S. forces have wanted to end their presence in the area before beginning a larger campaign against Iraqi forces in northern Iraq.

Late last week, the Peshmergas moved into positions near the town Chamchamal that had been abandoned by Iraqi forces withdrawing toward Kirkuk, the major oil center in northern Iraq. The move disquieted Turkish officials who fear the expansionism of the Kurds as the Iraqis fall back.

The situation is not unlike the plight of Bosnian refugees. Thousands of Kurds were forced into leaving by Saddam Hussein and see any land opened up as rightfully theirs.

The Turks fear that at the war's end, they will be faced with a vast, independent Kurdish state on their border. They also fear that Kurdish troops will try to occupy Mosul and Kirkuk and control the oil resources of the area.

"That's a job for Americans," Talabani told the Daily News. "Our forces entered the positions vacated by the Iraqi forces so that civilians would not enter these areas and complicate the current delicate situation."

Talabani and other Kurdish leaders met with U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, who has been trying to negotiate a better relationship between Turkey and the Kurds. Turkish anxiety has overshadowed U.S. troop and basing requests. The Turks want guarantees that they won't wake up and find a new, independent Kurdish nation on their borders that could incite nationalism among their own restive Kurdish minority.

The Turks have made the border region virtually a military zone, registering every reporter who goes there, stopping cars every few miles at check points, closing the border to northern Iraq.

One Japanese journalist told UPI that in Solopi officials stopped him from asking several people on the street about the Kurdish situation. The United States is still seeking basing rights to support its forces in northern Iraq.

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