SHINERWE MOUNTAIN, Iraq—The remote slopes and valleys in front of Sarkawt Abdullah's hilltop mortar pit could become the next battlefield in America's war against terrorism.
CIA officers in Kurdish-controlled areas of northern Iraq have recommended that U.S. forces support an attack by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, a group that seeks to oust Saddam Hussein, on the 10-square-mile mountain bastion of the militant Islamic organization Ansar al Islam ("Partisans of Islam").
Kurdish officials say dozens of Osama bin Laden's fugitive followers, most of them Arabs, have found refuge with Ansar. In their redoubt, where a hatred of America shared by Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida intersects.
"Those people are from Tora Bora," said Abdullah, gesturing at bunkers on nearby ridges and recalling the mountain bastion in Afghanistan from which bin Laden and many of his loyalists escaped a U.S.-led attack just over a year ago.
PUK officials said discussions are under way with CIA and U.S. military officers on a possible coordinated assault on an estimated 600 to 700 Kurdish and Arab fighters. PUK military and political officials said U.S. special operations forces and U.S. aircraft armed with precision-guided bombs could support an assault by PUK fighters.
American operatives have been seen surveying Ansar's tiny stronghold from front-line bunkers and trenches held by PUK fighters on ridgelines atop Shinerwe Mountain, west of the town of Halabja.
"It is America's responsibility to eliminate them because it began a war on terrorism everywhere after Sept. 11," said Gen. Simko Dzayee, the chief of staff of the PUK militia.
Kurdish commanders have been unable to dislodge the Ansar militants because they lack enough heavy weapons, local politics complicate the situation, and because the rough terrain is strewn with land mines.
The militants of Ansar are challenging the authority of the PUK and other secular Kurdish leaders by enforcing strict Taliban-style Islamic rule in a remote sliver of rugged territory that sits against the snow-draped peaks of Iraq's border with Iran.
The militants have set up defenses and training camps and produced gory combat videos. Music and schools for girls are banned. Men must wear beards and pray five times a day. Women must cover themselves. Merchants must rip women's images off the wrappers of soaps and other goods.
CIA and Pentagon officials began planning an operation against Ansar some time ago, officials in Washington said. The officials declined to say whether President Bush has approved such an operation, however, and an early attack could complicate U.S. efforts to muster support for an attack on Iraq in the United Nations Security Council and from reluctant European and Mideast allies.
Rooting out Ansar could prove difficult. The group's 10-square-mile stronghold is home to 10,000 civilians in 17 villages and hamlets, and PUK officials worry that Iranian Revolutionary Guards could support Ansar with shellfire and close down Kurdish trade over the Iranian border.
PUK officials also allege that two Islamic militias sympathetic to Ansar control the low ground on the flanks of its stronghold, serve as conduits for supplies and provide the militants with fake ID cards that allow them to slip into PUK territory.
Yasir Abdullah Sherif, a spokesman for the one of the parties, Komali Islami ("Islamic Society"), denied that it supports Ansar and said it would remain neutral. But he acknowledged that "the terrain is such that we are intermixed" and that Ansar's fighters "move freely in this area."
But officials in Washington left little doubt that Ansar is likely to have a place in any U.S. plan to invade Iraq.
The officials, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity, said the group could pose a threat to U.S. troops using the Kurdish-controlled region as a staging area for a possible attack south into Saddam's Iraq. They said the militant Islamic group also could threaten both coalition forces occupying Iraq after Saddam's ouster and any interim Iraqi government.
Many U.S. intelligence analysts initially were skeptical that Ansar posed much of a threat to U.S. interests, the officials said, but began changing their minds after the CIA set up a base in Kurdistan and the National Security Agency established listening posts in the area to intercept Ansar and Iraqi communications.
"Ansar and Saddam don't have much in common, but they do have one thing: They both hate the United States," said one official.
PUK officials said Baghdad smuggles arms and money to Ansar, as do hard-liners in Iran's Islamic regime.
PUK officials and a former Iraqi intelligence officer in their custody also charge that Saddam has supplied the militants with crude chemical weapons.
"Through me, Iraq sent money, weapons and raw materials to make chemical weapons," said the former intelligence officer, who uses the pseudonym Abu Iman al Baghdadi.
"They've done tests on animals and the people in the area have seen that," asserted Dzayee, the PUK militia's chief of staff.
Baghdad denies that it's collaborating with Ansar, and so does the Iranian government.
Senior PUK officials charge that Ansar also has become a key node in al-Qaida's global terror network, and that bin Laden operatives pass through Ansar's territory.
"Ansar and al-Qaida have a friendship and are cooperating with each other," said Qays Ibrahim Khadir, an Ansar sympathizer who was arrested after a failed bid to kill Barham Salih, the PUK prime minister, last April.
Khadir, who in an interview arranged by the PUK said he sought and received al-Qaida's blessing for the attack, spent more than three months last year with Ansar.
PUK officials also charged that two Iraqi intelligence officers—Sadoon Mahmood Abdullatif al Ani, who uses the nom de guerre Abu Wa'il, and a Lt. Saad—are among the al-Qaida fighters with Ansar.
Gen. Shawkat Haji Mushir, a senior PUK commander who served as chief intermediary with Ansar, claimed that there are about 150 al-Qaida fighters with the group; U.S. intelligence officials estimate that there may be several dozen.
Abu Musaab al Zarqawi, considered the leader of the al-Qaida fugitives, was treated in a Baghdad hospital last year for a wound suffered while fighting in Afghanistan, they said.
Jordan is seeking al Zarqawi for the killing of a U.S. Agency for International Development official in Amman in October.
PUK officials' contentions are based on al-Qaida documents recovered in Afghanistan, information from informers, defectors and prisoners, intercepts of radio and telephone conversations and intelligence that the United States began providing before the Sept. 11 attacks.
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): IRAQ-ALQAIDA