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No sign of poison in Ansar camp

Kurdish group linked to al-Qaida pleads innocence to reporters

Sunday, February 16, 2003

By Borzou Daragahi, Special to the Post-Gazette

SARGAT, Iraq -- To hear the Kurds and the United States tell it, a compound here near the Iraqi city of Halabja has been turned into a chemical weapons plant manned by al-Qaida operatives and used to produce chemical bombs and booby traps, including poison cigarettes and paint.

That nightmare scenario described by Secretary of State Colin Powell and a high-level Kurdish intelligence official is part of the evidence the U.S. and Kurds claim links Saddam Hussein to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network and to Ansar al Islam, a small group of about 650 to 700 Islamic militants holed up in the Zagros mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan.

But a recent visit to the site by a group of reporters revealed no obvious signs of a poison factory, nor any obvious al-Qaida operatives. Just a group of heavily armed black-turbaned Islamists with long beards and short tempers.

"There are no chemical weapons here," said Mohammad Hassan, one of the Ansar operatives, 20 minutes before hastily ordering all the journalists to leave.

Many terrorism experts have long agreed that Ansar has recruited from the Afghan-trained warriors who drilled in Osama bin Laden's camps. Powell's Feb. 5 Security Council speech linking Saddam to Ansar and al-Qaida confirmed what some Kurds have said for a while: that Saddam has been backing Ansar militants.

Since the establishment of the autonomous Kurdish enclave following the 1991 Gulf War, the two Kurdish parties have run this Switzerland-sized swath of northeastern Iraq. Islamic extremists have always been a problem in this area, which borders Iran. But no group has caused as much consternation,or as many casualties, as Ansar.

In December, an Ansar attack on forces of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, which runs the eastern half of the autonomous zone, left scores dead. Just hours after the reporters visited the Sargat site last week, Ansar gunmen shot and killed General Shawkat Haji Mushir, a prominent Kurdish minister, and several other people.

The Kurds say the elaborately staged killing, in which Ansar guerrillas posed as defectors and lulled the general into thinking they were on his side, could only have been planned by al-Qaida masterminds. The Kurds say they have more evidence of al-Qaida ties that the United States has yet to hear, and they have every reason to make the connection so as bring down U.S. wrath on both their enemies -- Ansar and Saddam Hussein.

They allege that Qeyes Ibrahim Qader -- an Islamic militant captured attempting to assassinate PUK-region Prime Minister Barham Salih last year -- had been given the order to act by a man in Ansar al Islam's Biyare, Iraq, stronghold that he later identified in a photo line-up as Abu Musaab al-Zarqawi. Al-Zarqawi is the radical Islamist suspected of plotting the murder of U.S. official Laurence Foley in Jordan in December. Powell identified him as an al-Qaida leader harbored by Saddam.

Kurdish intelligence agents also say the PUK has captured several former Iraqi military and intelligence officers who confessed that they had been sent by the Baghdad government to meet with Ansar. They allege that Baghdad aids Ansar operatives in gaining access to Kurdish areas.

Then there's the chemical factory. Sadi Ahmad Pire, a high-level official of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, claims his government has culled information about chemical weapons activity from Ansar al Islam prisoners. Patriotic Union officials pinpointed the village of Sargat as the site where the plant is located, and insist that the Islamist group must have moved the evidence of chemical weapons before the journalists arrived there.

The PUK says its evidence about the factory is based on eyewitness accounts, prisoner confessions and seized evidence, including the poison cigarettes. "Only the Afghan Arabs and not the local Kurds are allowed to be in the factory, which is surrounded by houses and buildings and inaccessible to all but a few," said the PUK intelligence chief.

The factory lies less than 5 kilometers from Khurmal, a bustling town of approximately 2,000 residents which is under the control of the Kurdistan Islamic Group, locally called "Komala Islamy," a moderate Islamist group which maintains friendly relations with both Ansar and the Patriotic Union.

Ironically, the area where Powell and the Kurds allege al-Qaida has built a chemical weapons plant was subjected to heavy chemical and conventional bombardment in the closing days of the Iran-Iraq war in 1988. Though less famous than its neighbor of Halabja 25 kilometers away -- in which 5,000 people died in chemical bombardment at the hands of Saddam -- this area also was completely destroyed.

Only recently have people begun to rebuild their lives. The evidence of Saddam's campaigns against the Kurds -- the crushed ruins of whole towns obliterated -- mark the road up the mountain to Sargat.

"They've just started to put up mud-brick houses and open up the market," said Zana Said Rustayee, the Kurdistan Islamic Group's Irbil-based lawyer. "They've had a hard life."

Borzou Daragahi is a freelance journalist based in Tehran.

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