SHINERWE MOUNTAIN, Iraq—Along with Baghdad and the oil fields of Kirkuk, a U.S.-led invasion of Iraq could sweep into the slopes and valleys off in the distance in front of Sarkawt Abdullah's hilltop mortar pit.
"Those people are from Tora Bora," said the Kurdish fighter, gesturing at bunkers on nearby ridges and recalling the mountain bastion in Afghanistan from which Osama bin Laden and many of his loyalists escaped a U.S.-led siege just over a year ago.
Kurdish officials say dozens of bin Laden's fugitive followers, most of them Arabs, have found a refuge with a militant group, Ansar al Islam ("Partisans of Islam"), after making their way to the Kurds' self-ruled enclave in northern Iraq.
The militants are challenging the authority of secular Kurdish leaders, enforcing strict Taliban-style Islamic rule in a remote sliver of rugged territory that sits hard against the snow-draped peaks of Iraq's border with Iran.
In their 10-square-mile stronghold, a hatred of America shared by Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida intersects, Kurdish officials say.
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.
A link between Saddam and Ansar could support President Bush's argument that Saddam must be ousted. In his State of the Union speech last month, Bush said intelligence had revealed that Saddam "aids and protects terrorists, including members of al-Qaida."
The Kurds want to see Saddam removed because his regime has repressed them for decades.
Kurdish commanders have been unable to dislodge the militants because they lack enough heavy weapons, local politics make the situation complex, and the rough terrain is strewn with mines.
So the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, which controls this half of the Kurds' Vermont-size enclave, has asked the Bush administration for help. PUK officials said discussions are under way with CIA and military officers in their region on a possible coordinated assault on the estimated 600 to 700 Kurdish and Arab fighters.
American operatives have been seen surveying Ansar's tiny stronghold from front-line bunkers and trenches held by PUK fighters on ridgelines that crest atop Shinerwe Mountain, west of the town of Halabja.
PUK military and political officials said they envision an operation in which U.S. special operations forces and U.S. aircraft armed with precision-guided bombs would support an assault by PUK fighters.
"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. It is impossible to verify the charges that Saddam is aiding the Ansar militants. Baghdad denies it is doing so. The Iranian government also denies giving help.
U.S. officials in Washington, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity, said they are concerned that Ansar fighters could pose a threat to U.S. troops who are using the Kurd-controlled region as a staging area for a possible drive on Baghdad or Tikrit, Saddam's hometown. They said that if it's not eliminated, the militant Islamic group also could threaten coalition forces that would occupy Iraq after Saddam's ouster and any interim Iraqi government.
CIA and Pentagon officials in Kurdish-controlled areas of northern Iraq have been collecting information on Ansar for several months and began planning an operation against the group some time ago, said officials in Washington. The officials declined to say whether President Bush has approved such an operation, however.
Although intelligence officials initially were skeptical that the militants of Ansar posed much of a threat to U.S. interests, the officials said, the CIA set up a base in Kurdistan and the National Security Agency established several listening posts in the area to intercept both Ansar and Iraqi communications. Based on the intelligence, the CIA base chief in Kurdistan has recommended that the United States take action against Ansar in concert with any U.S.-led attack on Iraq.
A U.S. intelligence official, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that while there is no evidence linking Iraq to the Sept. 11 attacks and no proof that Saddam and al-Qaida have cooperated on terrorist operations, there is convincing evidence of an ongoing relationship with elements of the Iraqi regime and members of al-Qaida since bin Laden's group was evicted from Sudan in 1996. These include, the official said, "financial and material support as well as travel to Iraq by members of al-Qaida."
Senior officials of the Kurdish party said that Ansar has become a key node in al-Qaida's global network, and that bin Laden operatives pass through Ansar's territory.
Their 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.
"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 said he sought and received al-Qaida's blessing for the attack, spent more than three months last year with Ansar.
PUK officials said arms and money are smuggled to Ansar by Baghdad, as well as by hard-liners of Iran's Islamic regime anxious to contest U.S. influence in the region.
Saddam also has supplied the militants with crude chemical weapons, according to PUK officials and a former Iraqi intelligence officer in their custody.
"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.
PUK officials identified two Iraqi intelligence officers—Sadoon Mahmood Abdullatif al Ani, who uses the nom de guerre Abu Wa'il, and a Lt. Saad—among the al-Qaida fighters with Ansar.
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.
Many of Ansar's leaders are said to have been educated at religious schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Al-Qaida representatives, including al Zarqawi and al Ani, joined the group shortly after its formation, said Gen. Shawkat Haji Mushir, a senior PUK commander who served as chief intermediary with Ansar. He claimed that there are about 150 al-Qaida fighters with the group; U.S. intelligence officials said they believe there might be several dozen.
Capturing Ansar's stronghold could prove difficult.
Ansar's 10-square-mile stronghold is home to 10,000 civilians in 17 villages and hamlets.
PUK officials worry that the Iranian army could support Ansar with shellfire and close down Kurdish trade over the Iranian border.
PUK officials allege that two Islamic militias that are 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."
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): IRAQ-ALQAIDA