SARGAT, Iraq—A remote site in the mountains of northern Iraq identified by U.S. officials as a crude laboratory where al-Qaida terrorists concoct poisons is a muddy, decrepit, refuse-strewn compound devoid of any signs of deadly substances.
Ansar al Islam, a Kurdish militant group accused by U.S. and Kurdish officials of harboring al-Qaida fugitives from Afghanistan, on Saturday took foreign journalists on a tour of the site and denied it had a poison-making facility. Ansar controls a rugged sanctuary within the independent Kurdish zone of northern Iraq and imposes harsh Taliban-style Islamic rule.
"The only weapons here are the ones you can see," insisted Ayub Qader, who helped conduct the tour, referring to his squad of gun-toting militants.
Secretary of State Colin Powell presented a U.S. spy satellite picture of the compound to the U.N. Security Council last Wednesday as he sought to bolster Bush administration charges that Saddam Hussein is allowing followers of Osama bin Laden to operate in Iraq.
Powell told the Security Council that the compound is an al-Qaida "poison and explosives training center." Although the camp is located in an area outside Saddam Hussein's control, Powell said, "Baghdad has an agent in the most senior levels of the radical organization Ansar al Islam (Partisans of Islam) that controls this corner of Iraq."
Officials of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, a secular party that controls part of the Kurdish zone and is at war with Ansar, also have said the compound had a poison plant.
The journalists' tour of the compound came three days after Powell's presentation, ample time for incriminating evidence to be cleared away. Ansar gunmen also prevented the visitors from approaching parts of the heavily fortified site, which is ringed by barbed wire hung with red signs warning of mines. Several members of the Islamic militant group used videotape cameras to film the journalists' visit.
Mohammad Hassan, who described himself as an Ansar's spokesman, denied that the group receives support from Saddam or harbors al-Qaida members, saying the only Arabs it is sheltering are Iraqi army deserters. Hassan spoke cryptically of Ansar's goal, saying only that it wanted "to fulfill" the goals of the Prophet Muhammad.
The dwellings in the compound were clustered around a blockhouse-type building. On its four top corners were brick turrets with shooting slits. A lookout tower, which can be seen in the U.S. satellite picture, occupied the center of the roof. The outline of the compound structures also matched those in the satellite picture.
There was no sign of chemicals, mixing vessels, running water or other things associated with the production of deadly substances. The only sharp odor at the compound came from rotting food overflowing from a trash container.
The site is in Sargat, an impoverished hamlet of scattered hovels high up steep slopes that crest in snow-crowned peaks of the Iranian border.
The satellite photograph presented to the Security Council gave the compound's location as Khurmal, a town about four miles away that is not controlled by Ansar. Khurmal is the headquarters of a more moderate Kurdish Islamic faction, Komal Islami.
While some of Komal fighters are said to sympathize with Ansar, Komal's leaders cooperate with Ansar's rival, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.
U.S. officials in Washington, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the United States is using an unmanned CIA aerial vehicle, electronic monitoring, spy satellites and agents on the ground to determine whether the facility poses a significant enough threat to warrant a pre-emptive strike.
President Bush rejected plans for a covert attack on the lab last August. Since then, however, traces of ricin, a potent poison that's easily made from castor oil beans, were found in a north London apartment occupied by six Islamic militants.
U.S. officials said al-Qaida members at the lab in northern Iraq have been testing ricin, and perhaps cyanide and other toxins, on farm animals and on at least one human, a man who later died.
Intelligence officials intercepted e-mails to the alleged terrorist cell in London from a fugitive al-Qaida leader in Iraq named Abu Musab al Zarqawi. Jordanian intelligence officials believe that Zarqawi, who received training in chemical and biological weapons at al-Qaida camps in Afghanistan, is hiding in the area where the lab is located, and Powell said his lieutenants "are helping to run this camp."
Kurdish and U.S. officials say the estimated 600 Ansar militants and 150 al-Qaida fighters in the 17 villages and hamlets Ansar controls represent a serious threat, particularly to U.S. forces that would invade and occupy Iraq.
The PUK has asked for U.S. military support for an assault on Ansar and is building up forces on frontlines opposite Ansar's stronghold.
If the United States were to attack, however, it would do so as part of the global war against al-Qaida, not as a prelude to an invasion of Iraq, said a U.S. official, who also declined to be named.
Komal leader Ali Bapir arranged the reporters' visit to the compound, sending his personal bodyguards to protect them.
Ansar's Qader, who helped conduct the tour, described himself as a media official. Kurdish officials identify him by as Ayub Afghani and say he is a veteran of the 1979-89 Islamic guerrilla war against Soviet troops in Afghanistan, a member of Ansar's leadership council and one of its trainers and bomb makers.
Qader and a handful of Ansar militants met the party at the last checkpoint on Komal territory and escorted them into their territory, passing earthen bunkers and fortified cave entrances. Hard-faced men of varying ages, all sporting long beards, guarded the compound.
The cinderblock and concrete dwellings were empty except for discarded shoes, sandals and clothing, old pots and pans, worn blankets, and broken cupboards. The grounds were littered with garbage. Inside the main building were a TV studio, computers and a digital scanner.
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): POISONSITE