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U.S. special forces, Kurdish rebels hunt Islamic extremists

SHRAM MOUNTAIN, Iraq—The sniper was all business.

Peering through his scope, he steadied the black barrel of his rifle against a spine of rock, waiting for his spotter to pick out their quarry in the shadows of the ravine below.

"There are three deer on the small switchback. Can you see them?" queried the spotter, hunched behind his partner, focusing his own telescope. "See the cave? Follow it up to the switchback."

The sniper adjusted his aim. Then he squeezed the trigger.

The rifle barked, kicking hard as it sent a .50-caliber round toward the black specks scrambling up the far side of the ravine. The shot fell short, sending a shower of dust from the boulder it hit.

The shooter and his spotter were U.S. special forces nestled in a rocky outcrop less than 2 miles from the snow-draped peaks that mark Iraq's northeastern frontier with Iran.

The "deer" were remnants of Ansar al Islam, a Kurdish Islamic extremist group that allegedly sheltered members of Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terrorist network and produced rudimentary chemical weapons in a crude laboratory.

Some 100 U.S. special forces and 7,000 Kurdish rebels Saturday pursued an unknown number of Ansar fighters through the mountains bordering Iran. They'd escaped a lightning offensive that drove them from their stronghold a day before.

The foes dueled across Alpine peaks and pastures, the Americans and Kurds trying to keep Ansar's men from reaching Iran, the militants struggling to reach goat paths and smugglers' tracks that zigzag back to the border.

"We're trying to hit them as best we can because we don't want them to infiltrate back," said the sniper team's commander, who refused to be identified.

At least eight militants were killed Saturday, pushing Ansar's death toll since Friday to more than 70. At least four Kurds have died; so far there have been no U.S. casualties.

The drive against Ansar reflects a significant boost in cooperation between the U.S. military and Kurdish rebels who have controlled a Vermont-size enclave in northern Iraq since Saddam Hussein withdrew his forces from the area in 1991.

It remains to be seen whether they'll fight together in a northern front against Saddam's forces, who are dug in less than 100 miles to the west, defending the oil-rich cities of Mosul and Kirkuk.

At times, the fighting Saturday took on a surreal air.

Scores of U.S. soldiers and Kurdish guerrillas lay on grassy slopes, enjoying the spring sunshine and majestic views. Others stood atop rocks, like spectators at a sporting event, as their comrades tracked down Ansar's retreating men.

Some Ansar fighters sought to cover their comrades' escapes, firing from caves and crevices that had been stocked with food and ammunition. But the retreating men were badly outnumbered.

In one circle of boulders lay the blood-covered bodies of three Ansar members. Nearby sat a pile of white beans, several cooking pots and a box containing a bottle of oil and a sack of rice.

"This is the end of Ansar," spat Najat Hassan Ahmad, 51, a veteran Kurdish guerrilla who lost two comrades when their unit stormed the position. "We will clean up the entire area of this filth."

Two years ago, Ansar took over a sliver of territory in the portion of the Kurdish rebel enclave that the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan controls.

It imposed strict Taliban-style Islamic rule on the handful of villages and hamlets under its sway, and conducted attacks and suicide bombings against senior Kurdish officials and fighters.

The Bush administration and the PUK have accused Ansar's estimated 600 fighters of sheltering about 150 al-Qaida members who had fled Afghanistan.

They contend that Ansar helped prove a link between bin Laden and Saddam, saying the Iraqi dictator gave money and training to the militants. Even some U.S. intelligence officials, however, say the link is tenuous at best.

The offensive was preceded by U.S. bombing strikes and cruise missile attacks. Several bombs scored direct hits Friday on the mosque in the village of Biyara that Ansar used as its headquarters.

On Saturday, Kurdish guerrillas, known as Peshmerga, or "those who face death," did the heavy lifting, launching frontal assaults on retreating Ansar fighters.

U.S. special forces, riding in small trucks and Humvees, called in airstrikes or tried to pick off the militants with mortar, sniper and grenade fire.

"Hey, Tony! Spot! Spot! We're going to fire a mortar round into there," one U.S. soldier said to the sniper's spotter, referring to a small rise in the ground where several Ansar fighters had been seen taking cover.

The dull thud of a 60 mm mortar rang out.

"You're short, you're short," Tony called out, watching the black puff of smoke where the round exploded. "Down 100, right 50."

As the pursuit of Ansar continued, a team of U.S. specialists wearing breathing masks and armed with high-tech detectors swept into a former Ansar compound to search for chemical or biological weapons.

"We are in the initial assessment right now," said Maj. Tim Nye, a spokesman for Task Force Viking, the special forces contingent that participated in the assault on Ansar. "The plan is to take samples and then take them somewhere else for final testing."

The site, ringed by barbed wire holding signs warning of land mines, had been reduced to rubble by U.S. bombs and cannon fire from an AC-130 "Spooky" gunship.

The Bush administration had identified the compound, in the village of Sargat, as a "poison factory" where Ansar made crude chemical weapons. Ansar denied the allegation.

Back at the front, the U.S. special forces unit called in an airstrike in a deep valley to the north.

In the dim light of dusk, a bright flash reflected off the valley walls. It was quickly replaced by a column of brown smoke that snaked into the evening sky.


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

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): ANSAR