SULAIMANIYAH, Iraq—Islamic militants bound by a suicide pact assassinated a senior Kurdish general and two top security officers, a Kurdish Islamic militant group said Monday, claiming responsibility of the killings.
Ansar al-Islam (Partisans of Islam), which United States and Kurdish officials accuse of harboring followers of Osama bin Laden in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq, said the murders foiled a plot against it by the U.S.-backed Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.
The Saturday night killings have intensified pressure on the PUK to crack down on the militants in advance of a possible U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. But there was no sign on Monday that PUK leaders were preparing to act.
Instead, reinforcements arriving at the front lines said there were fears that Ansar might take advantage of a four-day Muslim holiday that begins on Tuesday to attack the PUK-controlled town of Halabja.
Police were stopping all minibuses entering Halabja and requiring passengers to get off for questioning.
Two statements on Ansar's new Web site, neither of which could be independently verified, said the PUK had offered 150 militants "unimaginable" amounts of cash to defect, attack the group's mountain stronghold from the rear and allow the PUK to recapture the area.
The Web site, in Arabic, Turkish and Kurdish versions, is at http://220.127.116.11.
In a claim that may have been intended to sow discord among Kurdish groups hostile to both Saddam Hussein and Ansar, the Web site said the defectors also were to attack the PUK's political rival, the Kurdistan Democratic Party.
The statement claimed that Ansar militants went along with the scheme until it was about to be concluded.
"Brothers who swore an oath of death to God" and "abandoned the pleasures of the world for the sake of Doomsday" killed Gen. Shawkat Hajji Mushir and the two senior PUK security officials, said one statement. Shawkat was a veteran guerrilla who was on the PUK leadership council and was the party's chief negotiator with Ansar.
The three attackers escaped and took three PUK guards with them. The hostages were being held in the Ansar-controlled village of Byara, said a senior PUK commander, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Four civilians were killed, including an 8-year-old girl who succumbed to her wounds on Monday, said PUK-run television. Eight other people, including the security chief of Halabja, were injured.
PUK officials, who said Shawkat was killed after he was lured to a meeting with the militants on the pretext of completing a defection deal, had no immediate comment on the group's claim of responsibility.
The PUK is among the main Iraqi opposition groups that would assist a U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. The Bush administration is also counting on the PUK's 30,000-strong militia, hardened by decades of fighting, to help U.S. and other troops prevent ethnic and religious hatreds from splintering Iraq after Saddam's ouster.
"We've worked closely with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan for many years," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Monday, condemning what he called "this act of terror."
The PUK and the KDP have presided over quasi-democratic administrations in northern Iraq since Saddam Hussein withdrew his forces from the Kurd-dominated area in 1991. But some political experts said the assassinations could make the PUK's job harder by encouraging new challenges to its authority.
The attack raised "not only doubts about their (the PUK's) abilities, but questions about why they don't act," said Asos Hardi, the editor in chief of Hawlati, an independent newspaper in Sulaimaniyah, where the party has its headquarters.
The slaying of Shawkat is the latest in a series of audacious acts by Ansar. During a Muslim holiday in December, it attacked a PUK outpost and videotaped the operation and the corpses of dozens of fighters it slaughtered. In April, the group tried unsuccessfully to kill PUK Prime Minister Barham Salih.
Senior PUK officials contend that rugged, mine-sown terrain, a shortage of heavy weapons and a threat of Iranian intervention on Ansar's behalf are blocking an assault on Ansar's stronghold.
The PUK has asked for U.S. military support. The Bush administration is considering the request because of worries that Ansar is providing al-Qaida with a base and a crude poison-making laboratory.
(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Tom Pennington contributed to this report.)
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): IRAQ-KILLING.