SULAIMANIYAH, Iraq—Thousands of Kurdish rebels supported by U.S. ground and air power Friday launched an offensive on a Kurdish Islamic militant group allegedly in league with Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network.
By nightfall, Patriotic Union of Kurdistan guerrillas and U.S. Special Forces had overrun virtually all of the isolated enclave that was held by Ansar al Islam (Partisans of Islam) and driven most of its fighters into mountains bordering Iran.
More than 60 Ansar members were killed, according to Jalal Talabani, the head of the PUK. He said two of his men had died and eight were wounded, and there had been no casualties among dozens of U.S. soldiers in the operation.
At a news conference with Zalmay Khalilzad, President Bush's special envoy to the Iraqi opposition, Talabani said he believed the fighting could be over within 24 hours.
But the PUK and the United States could still face a bloody job in eliminating Ansar's remaining 600 fighters and the estimated 150 al-Qaida members believed to be with them. Ansar has fortified caves and fighting positions in rugged mountain slopes that could be hard to hit from the air. PUK and U.S. troops may be forced to fight uphill, position by position, in a protracted and costly battle.
Even then, some of the militants may escape, as bin Laden did from his Afghan stronghold of Tora Bora in December 2001, and continue their struggle to forge a Taliban-style Islamic regime in the Kurd-dominated area of northern Iraq.
Ansar has conducted assassinations, suicide bombings and ground assaults that have killed and injured several senior Kurdish officials and dozens of fighters over the past two years.
The Bush administration and PUK officials contend that the group is sheltering al-Qaida fugitives from Afghanistan and that it has produced rudimentary chemical weapons at a crude laboratory on its territory.
They have also portrayed Ansar as a link between al-Qaida and Saddam Hussein, saying the Iraqi dictator provided the militants with funds and training. Baghdad denied the allegations.
Ansar controlled a handful of villages and hamlets in a swath of rolling hills and mountain slopes near the northeastern town of Halabja. It imposed strict Islamic rule on residents of its territory, forcing women to wear head-to-toe Islamic coverings and men to grow beards and pray five times per day.
Some 7,000 Kurdish fighters, known as peshmerga, meaning "those who face death," and an estimated 100 U.S. Special Forces launched the offensive Friday morning, PUK officials said.
As intense mortar fire rained on Ansar's positions, PUK guerrillas and U.S. Special Forces swept into its territory, driving the militants from all of the villages they had controlled, they said.
Talabani said U.S. Special Forces directed air strikes on Ansar positions.
The offensive was launched six days after U.S. forces began targeting Ansar with cruise missiles and bombs.
The U.S. strikes also hit the positions of another Islamic militant group, Komal Islami (the Islamic Group) that held a sliver of territory on Ansar's right flank. Dozens of Komal fighters were killed. PUK officials had accused Komal of supporting Ansar.
In other developments in the north:
_Troops from the 173rd Airborne Brigade, which parachuted into northern Iraq this week, moved several miles from the airfield they secured to a former Iraqi military facility now held by Kurdish forces of the Kurdistan Democratic Party. There, the U.S. paratroops mingled with hundreds of smiling peshmergas and bedded down indoors after spending two cold, rainy nights in the open.
The KDP and the PUK are the two Kurdish parties that control the autonomous Kurdish region. Their armies are operating under U.S. command.
KDP fighters armed with AK-47 rifles manned checkpoints around the airfield. They also dropped off sacks of warm bread and vats of stew, and their trucks delivered food, water and gear to the American troops on the landing zone. C-17 transport jets are expected to bring more American soldiers and equipment in the next few days.
The United States wanted to send the 4th Infantry Division, with its heavy armor, into Iraq from Turkey to open a northern front. But Turkey refused to allow the ground forces to deploy from its soil.
Brigade commander Col. William Mayville, who jumped out of the first airplane, said the future missions for the 173rd have not been decided.
The brigade may find itself acting as a stabilizing force between the Kurds and any Turkish forces that enter the region. "On the other hand, we could fight as part of a combat arms team here in the north," Mayville said.
Most analysts believe Turkey, which has its own large Kurdish minority, wants to disrupt the formation of an independent Kurdish nation on its border.
The United States is opposed to any Turkish incursion into the Kurdish area. Khalilzad, the U.S. official, assured Kurdish leaders that Turkey has pledged not to send combat troops into the region.
(EDITORS: END OPTIONAL TRIM)
_U.S. bombers rocked the Iraqi cities of Mosul and Kirkuk on Friday night, and Kurdish guerrilla fighters moved forward across the Kurd-Iraqi border as Iraqi troops pulled back to defend Kirkuk.
_Near the frontline village of Kalak, Iraqi infantrymen continued to hold their defensive positions east of Mosul, although nine troopers defected to Kurdish security forces on Friday. Earlier in the week, 10 would-be defectors were caught by the Iraqis and shot in front of their regiment.
_In Irbil, Iraqi Kurdistan's main city, two artillery shells were found Friday in a garbage dump near a shopping center. One shell exploded, throwing off a cloud of white smoke, and local residents fled, fearing it was a chemical attack. No one was hurt, and police defused the other shell.
(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondents Ken Dilanian with the 173rd Airborne Brigade; Mark McDonald in Salahaddin, Iraq; and Kevin G. Hall in Ankara, Turkey, contributed to this report.)
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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