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Militant group working on chemical weapons, U.S. specialists find

HALABJA, Iraq—U.S. specialists have discovered evidence that a Kurdish Islamic militant group that the Bush administration has linked to al-Qaida was concocting chemical weapons in the mountains of northeastern Iraq, a U.S. military commander said Tuesday.

The special forces soldiers also found recipes for three forms of chlorine gas and for ricin, a deadly toxin derived from castor beans, American intelligence officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

U.S. aircraft, 100 American special forces and more than 8,000 Kurdish fighters on Friday swept the Ansar al Islam ("Partisans of Islam") militants out of the sliver of territory they had held for two years in northern Iraq's autonomous enclave.

The commander of the U.S. special forces battalion that participated in the attack said evidence that the group had been making chemical—and possibly biological—weapons was discovered in the ruins of a base that was devastated by American bombs.

President Bush has cited Ansar's alleged harboring of al-Qaida terrorists, alleged links to Saddam Hussein and suspected work on substances that could kill large numbers of Americans as some of the reasons for the invasion of Iraq.

"We found various documents, equipment, et cetera, that would indicate the presence of chemical and or biological weapons," the battalion commander, who declined to be further identified, said in the town of Halabja.

He said samples from the site in the mountain hamlet of Sargat were being sent back to the United States for testing.

A senior Kurdish security official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said U.S. chemical-warfare specialists who began combing the site Saturday had detected traces of ricin.

American specialists appeared to have been thorough in their search, paying particular attention to one room in a bunkerlike building sunk into the face of a cliff.

The room was swept clean. The rest of the building was littered with trash, including latex gloves, bandage wrappings and boxes of ampules of penicillin. A broken freezer lay on its side in one room. Another was filled with mortar rounds.

The senior Kurdish security official said the bunker-like building had served as Ansar's hospital.

While the group was crushed as a military force, remnants continued fighting sporadic gun battles Tuesday with U.S. and Kurdish soldiers, who were pursuing them in snowbound peaks and cave-dotted ravines on the border with Iran.

Ansar may still pose a threat to secular Kurdish officials and American troops because a significant number of its estimated 700 to 1,000 fighters remained unaccounted for.

The U.S. battalion commander and his officers praised the Kurdish guerrillas, known as peshmerga ("those who face death"), who carried the brunt of the offensive against Ansar.

"This was not a significant U.S. effort," the battalion commander said. "The real folks who carried the day were the peshmergas."

The American troops helped direct the attack, provided mortar and sniper fire for the peshmergas, and coordinated strikes by U.S. aircraft, including attack jets, B-52 bombers and AC-130 "Spooky" gunships. American robot spy planes kept tabs on the flight of the militants.

"In a period of one day and a half, a terrorist organization was rooted out and neutralized," the battalion commander said.

He said there were between 75 and 150 al-Qaida members who had taken refuge with Ansar after fleeing the U.S. military operations in Afghanistan.

Several hundred Ansar and al-Qaida militants were believed to have been killed, he said, citing "anecdotal evidence."

Another special forces soldier, who declined to be further identified, said he witnessed one Ansar member detonate explosives he was wearing on his body, killing himself and a peshmerga.

An undisclosed number of militants, including an Arab who was said to have served with al-Qaida in Afghanistan, were captured. But others were known to have escaped into Iran, the battalion commander said.

Two suspected al-Qaida terrorists, one with the pseudonym Abu Afghani, escaped across the border and surrendered to Iranian Revolutionary Guards, the American intelligence officials said. Iran has agreed to hand over any Ansar members it captures, but it remains to be seen whether it will honor the agreement.

"Could a couple of guys get up over the mountains (into Iran)? Yeah, I think so," said Maj. Tim Nye, the spokesman for Task Force Viking, the code name for the U.S. special forces unit.

The senior Kurdish security official discounted fears that holdout Ansar members might pose threats as assassins or suicide bombers seeking to avenge the assault on the group.

"Fighting is still continuing and they are still running away," he said.

Officials with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the Kurdish rebel group whose fighters participated in the operation, said at least 23 Arab members of al-Qaida were killed in fighting Tuesday. The bodies were seen being taken to Halabja in the backs of two trucks.

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

Iraq

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