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Militants slay leader of U.S.-backed Kurdish party in Iraq

SULAIMANIYAH, Iraq—Kurdish Islamic militants allegedly in league with al-Qaida assassinated a senior Kurdish general and two security officials, Kurdish officials said Sunday.

The killings intensify the war between the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, a secular party allied with the United States that controls part of the Kurdish autonomous in northern Iraq, and the Islamic militant group Ansar al Islam (Partisans of Islam).

The Kurds are among the Iraqi opposition groups supporting a possible U.S.-led invasion to oust Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. Thousands of U.S. troops are expected to deploy in the Kurdish region, and there are concerns that Ansar and its alleged al-Qaida allies could target them with terrorist attacks.

The slain general, Shawkat Haji Mushir, 56, was the senior-most Patriotic Union of Kurdistan official killed by Ansar, the Kurdish officials said. He was a member of the party's leadership council, served as the PUK's chief envoy to Ansar, and had been trying to negotiate a peace deal with the militants for more than a year.

Three civilians, including at least one child, were also killed. Ten people, including Mohamad Tawfiq, the security chief of the town of Halabja, were wounded in the attack. The gunmen escaped.

PUK Interior Minister Faraydoon Abdul Qader said that Shawkat was killed on Saturday night after being lured to a secret meeting on the pretext of discussing the defection of Hemin Banishary, a member of Ansar's leadership council. The three Ansar emissaries were allowed to keep their weapons during the talks at a private residence in the eastern village of Gamestapa. Shawkat had previously held several rounds of talks on the matter.

Shako Mirza Raheem, a PUK driver wounded in the attack, said two Ansar gunmen stayed outside, and the third met Shawkat inside. As the militant left the meeting, he shot the security officials to death in a hallway and then fired at Shawkat. He then killed three people who lived in the house, said Raheem.

One of the Ansar gunmen outside fired through a window at Shawkat, while the other hurled grenades and shot at PUK drivers and guards, said Raheem.

Faraydoon said he believed Ansar targeted Shawkat because of his efforts to win defections and because he was working on reconstruction programs aimed at alleviating the poverty that helps produce recruits for the group.

The attack would not have taken place without al-Qaida's blessings, the officials contended.

Ansar operates from a heavily defended slice of rugged territory in northeastern Iraq. The PUK has far more manpower, but it does not have the heavy weapons needed to defeat Ansar. Local politics also have complicated the situation.

The Bush administration and PUK leaders charge that Ansar is allowing followers of Osama bin Laden to use its stronghold as a base to plot terrorism and concoct poisons. The United States and the PUK also contend that Saddam is supporting the estimated 600 Ansar militants and 150 al-Qaida fighters.

Ansar leaders denied the charges on Saturday when they allowed foreign journalists to visit a compound identified by U.S. officials as the site of an al-Qaida poison-making center. No poisons could be seen at the site.

Senior PUK leaders vowed on Sunday to avenge Shawkat's death.

But PUK Vice President Nowshirwan Mustafa conceded that a PUK assault on Ansar would stand a far better chance if it had U.S. military backing.

"We can do it," he said at Shawkat's funeral at a crowded hilltop cemetery in Sulaimaniyah. "But it would be better if there is American assistance."

Shawkat's slaying was the heaviest blow to the PUK since Ansar in December slaughtered dozens of PUK fighters in a surprise assault. The group failed to kill PUK Prime Minister Barham Salih last April in what PUK officials say was an al-Qaida-authorized operation.

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(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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