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Americans in Iraq in danger of assassination, Kurdish officials say

WASHINGTON—Kurdish officials on Wednesday warned Americans in northern Iraq that they were targets for Iraqi assassins.

Officials in Washington said the warning did not originate from Iraqi opposition groups in the region, whose credibility is sometimes suspect. Instead, one official said, allied officials passed it on to their American counterparts, who passed it to the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, one of the main Iraqi Kurdish parties.

"We view the information as a credible threat," a U.S. official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Some analysts said the threat might have originated with one of the two sons of Saddam Hussein, Uday and Qusay.

PUK security officials in Sulaimaniyah called together the handful of American journalists in the city and several foreign aid experts involved in U.S.-sponsored programs to warn them of the threat.

"U.S. journalists and those (foreigners) associated with the United States have been targeted for immediate assassination by the Iraqi regime on the pretext that you are working for some government to bring about the downfall of Saddam Hussein," said Bafel Talibani, the son of PUK leader Jalal Talibani.

He described the source of the information as highly reliable, but declined to disclose any further details.

Talibani said the threat was directed "at individuals who are in Sulaimaniyah and specifically individuals who are staying at the Suleimani Palace hotel."

The hotel is one of two main hotels where foreign journalists stay in Sulaimaniyah, the city from which the PUK controls its half of the Kurds' self-governed safe haven in northern Iraq.

Gun-toting PUK fighters were posted around the hotel amid a general increase in security in the city center, and PUK officials offered journalists protection in a guarded compound.

PUK officials said a large number of Saddam's agents were operating in the city, and a U.S. official in Washington said Iraqi opposition groups have been thoroughly penetrated by Saddam's agents, who are "abundant" in the independent Kurdish zone.

The Iraqi security services, the official said, also might have made a deal to use members of the militant Islamic group Ansar al Islam ("Partisans of Islam"), which has some ties to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terrorist group, to attack Americans and members of the opposition.

Ansar fighters and a number of al-Qaida members who fled Afghanistan have imposed strict Islamic rule in a pocket of territory that they have seized on the border with Iran.

U.S. and Kurdish officials say that Ansar also receives weapons and other support from Saddam.

In Washington, another U.S. official said there has been a recent "spike" in communications between Baghdad and the Ansar group, which some analysts believe Saddam supports in an effort to destabilize the independent Kurdish zone in northern Iraq.

"What that represents is unclear," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

But he called Ansar "the lead candidate right now" in terms of threats against Americans in the region.

The group was bloodied in a recent engagement with PUK forces and may be looking to exact revenge, he said.

A senior administration official who read the intelligence reporting, and who spoke on condition of anonymity, said he considered the threat "very serious" and advised news organizations, nongovernmental groups and others who have Americans in the Kurdish area of northern Iraq to do likewise.

Another official noted that the Iraqis don't distinguish between journalists and other Americans, but consider all Americans in Iraq to be spies.


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