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Iraq Report: February 14, 2003

14 February 2003, Volume 6, Number 6
BIN LADEN LABELS IRAQI REGIME 'INFIDELS,' BUT CALLS ON MUSLIMS TO AID IT. In a taped message directed to the citizens of Iraq, broadcast on Al-Jazeera TV on 11 February, Osama bin Laden showed no affinity towards the regime of Iraqi leader Saddam Husayn. He instead focused his comments on what he called a "crusader war against Islam." "Regardless of the removal or the survival of the socialist [Ba'ath Party] or Saddam, Muslims in general, and the Iraqis in particular, must brace themselves for jihad against this unjust campaign and acquire ammunition and weapons," bin Laden stated. Bin Laden added that "There will be no harm if the interests of the Muslims converge with the interests of the socialists in the fight against the crusaders [ed.:the U.S. and its allies], despite our belief in the infidelity of the socialists [ed.: referring to the Iraqi regime].... The jurisdiction of the socialists and those rulers has fallen a long time ago. Socialists are infidels wherever they are, whether they are in Baghdad or Aden."

Bin Laden claimed in his message that he and most of some 300 of his Al-Qaeda fighters were able to survive the U.S. onslaught of coalition bombs in Tora Bora, Afghanistan because they dug 100 trenches over a radius of one-square mile, with three fighters per trench. He added that only 6 percent of his fighters were injured during the battle, despite the bombings and 15 days of on-the-ground fighting with Afghan forces. "The smart bombs will have no effect worth mentioning in the hills and in the trenches, on plains and in forests. They must have apparent targets...There will only be haphazard strikes that dissipate the enemy ammunition and waste its money," bin Laden added. "We also recommend luring the enemy forces into a protracted, close, and exhausting fight, using the camouflaged defensive positions in plains, farms, mountains, and cities. The enemy fears city and street wars the most, a war in which the enemy expects grave human loses," the Al-Qaeda leader concluded. (Kathleen Ridolfo)

IRAQ AGREES TO ALLOW U-2 OVERFLIGHTS... Iraq has agreed to allow UN inspectors to conduct aerial reconnaissance using U-2 spy planes, the Iraq News Agency reported on 10 February. Major General Husam Muhammad Amin, director-general of the Iraqi National Monitoring Directorate, issued a statement saying, "We [Iraq] have reached an agreement with UNMOVIC on a formula for aerial reconnaissance as per [UN Security Council] Resolution 1441." Iraq had voiced strong objections to the use of U-2 reconnaissance planes, first contending that they would be used to spy on Iraqi antiaircraft installations. Later, Iraqi officials stated they could not guarantee the safety of U-2 flights over Iraqi airspace unless the United States and the United Kingdom halted flights over the northern and southern no-fly zones while the U-2s were in the air. Iraq had said that it would not allow the U-2 flights unless the U.S. and U.K. flights ended, but they apparently gave up on this demand. (Kathleen Ridolfo)

...AS LEADER SAYS WAR IS 'ALREADY UNDER WAY.' Iraqi President Saddam Husayn commented on the issue of U-2 overflights in Iraq during a meeting with South African Deputy Foreign Minister Aziz Pahad, saying, "The war is already under way," Iraq Satellite Television reported on 10 February. Husayn complained about U.S. and U.K. near-daily air strikes on Iraqi military installations, adding, "They even want the inspectors to use their espionage U-2 aircraft in the aggression against us." Husayn compared the UN request for U-2 overflights to "asking Iraq to surrender to the U.S. military forces, because telling our air defenses not to open fire on raiding planes means surrendering to the United States and Britain, which is not reasonable." (Kathleen Ridolfo)

IRAQI OFFICIAL SAYS BURDEN OF PROOF ON U.S., NOT IRAQ... Iraqi presidential adviser Amr al-Sa'di briefed reporters on 9 February at the conclusion of two days of talks between Iraqi officials and UNMOVIC/IAEA representatives, Iraq Satellite Television reported. Asked whether he felt Iraq has done enough to satisfy international demands, including those of the United States, al-Sa'di said, "If they [the U.S.] claim that these things [weapons of mass destruction] exist, they should come here and present evidence." Referring to U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell's 5 February presentation to the UN Security Council, al-Sa'di asked, "Why do they not present the evidence they have to UNMOVIC to find out [weapons sites] instead of presenting them to the public and asking us to prove the opposite?" Al-Sa'di reiterated Iraq's stance that it is difficult for Iraq to prove it does not have banned weapons, adding, "As long as they [the U.S.] want to wage war based on this evidence [presented by Powell], then the burden of proof falls on them and not us." (Kathleen Ridolfo)

...AND DETAILS IRAQI POSITION. Presidential adviser al-Sa'di told reporters on 9 February that since 1 January Iraq has submitted 11 letters to the UN that he claims answered all of the outstanding IAEA questions regarding Iraq's nuclear program, Iraq Satellite Television reported. All that remains, al-Sa'di contended, is information "concerning an Iraqi person" who is outside Iraq. "He will come back soon and that question will be clarified," al-Sa'di added. Iraqi officials also handed over 24 documents pertaining to all outstanding UMMOVIC questions, and Iraqi officials proposed "some constructive ideas" as to how Iraq and UNMOVIC can resolve these questions through "joint work." The Iraqi delegation also submitted the findings of the inquiry commission that was set up to investigate the original 12 empty chemical warheads found at Al-Ukhaydir Munitions Stores (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 January 2003). Al-Sa'di added that a second committee has been established to search for documents to substantiate Iraq's claims regarding the destruction and cessation of weapons-of-mass-destruction programs. He further noted that the issue of U-2 overflights was not resolved, but stated that "we believe a formula can be reached" to resolve the issue, adding that Iraqi security officials and Air Defense Command experts are now examining ways that Iraq can guarantee the safety of UN aerial-surveillance planes. (Kathleen Ridolfo)

AL-QAEDA LEADER CALLS ARAB ALLIES 'APOSTATES.' Osama bin Laden, head of the Al-Qaeda terrorist network, in his audiotaped message broadcast on Al-Jazeera TV on 11 February, called on Muslims in Iraq to mobilize against the U.S. and its allies, including those Arab states that fight alongside the U.S., or provide the U.S. with support, be it administrative, military, or verbal. Bin Laden referred to Arab allies of the U.S. as "apostates" who live "outside the community of Muslims," adding, "It is permissible to spill their blood and take their property." He called on Muslims to incite and mobilize the Islamic nation "so as to liberate themselves from those unjust and renegade ruling regimes, which are enslaved by the United States," specifically mentioning Jordan, Morocco, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen." Bin Laden referred to these states as "treasonous and agent Arab governments," saying that they are satellites for Washington and Tel Aviv. (Kathleen Ridolfo)

KURDS OBTAIN U.S. COMMITMENT TO STRIKE ANSAR AL-ISLAM. Jalal Talabani, head of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), told London's "Sunday Telegraph" on 9 February that the U.S. has agreed to assist his group in crushing an Ansar Al-Islam enclave in northeastern Iraq. Talabani said the commitment was made by U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilizad in meetings in Ankara last week. The enclave will be one of the first aerial targets by the U.S., should it lead a military strike against Iraq, the "Sunday Telegraph" reported. Kurdish forces would move in on the ground following air strikes. (Kathleen Ridolfo)

KURDISH PARLIAMENTARIAN GUNNED DOWN BY ANSAR EXTREMISTS. Kurdish parliamentarian and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) military commander General Shawkat Haji Mushir was gunned down by three attackers from Ansar Al-Islam on 9 February, AP reported. Mushir, who served as the PUK's chief intermediary with Ansar, had been writing a letter negotiating the defection of 121 fighters from Ansar's Fatah Brigade when he was gunned down, "The New York Times" reported on 11 February. Kurdish officials told "The New York Times" that the defections would have caused a major rift in Ansar, and severely reduced its strength. "It was a very big bait for us," an unnamed Kurdish security official stated. In addition to Mushir, three civilians and two security officials were killed in the attack, "The New York Times" reported. Mushir's assassination came amidst a surge of kidnappings and killings of PUK officials and their family members in recent weeks by the radical group. In the U.S., State Department Spokesman Richard Boucher said that the United States condemned the killing of Mushir, adding that the U.S. "will continue to work with our friends in the region to ensure that this network is dismantled." (Kathleen Ridolfo)

TURKISH PRIME MINISTER AGAIN ASKS NATO FOR ASSISTANCE. Turkish Prime Minister Abdullah Gul reiterated Turkey's request for additional NATO protection in the event of a U.S.-led war with Iraq, one day after Turkey's original request was vetoed by NATO members France, Germany, and Belgium, saying, "Turkey defended the whole of Europe during the Cold War period. It was a shield for Europe. So there is no doubt that NATO must do what falls to it," Reuters reported on 11 February. Gul referred to the current conflict within NATO as a "diplomatic struggle," saying Turkey was not the direct target of the 10 February veto. "The Turkish armed forces are already very strong. There is no need for them [NATO allies]. Our own power is one of the important forces in the world. But there is no doubt that [NATO member states] have a responsibility because of our treaty rights," Gul added. Meanwhile, an 11 February Reuters report cited an article in the Turkish mass-circulation daily "Milliyet" of the same day reporting an offer of asylum allegedly made by Gul to Iraqi President Husayn. The offer was reportedly made through Iraqi Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan during his recent visit to Ankara, Reuters reported. Gul, however, has denied offering Husayn asylum, according to the Ankara-based daily "Anatolia." (Kathleen Ridolfo)

IRAQI MISSILE IN VIOLATION. UN weapons inspectors have reportedly deemed the Iraqi Al-Sumud 2 missile in violation of UN resolutions, Reuters reported on 12 February. UN resolutions stipulate that the missile's range should not exceed 150 kilometers. "The verdict on the missiles was that the Al-Sumud falls in the prohibited zone and its engines should probably be destroyed," Reuters quoted an unnamed UN Security Council diplomat as saying. The United National Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC) did not comment on the issue in its 12 February briefing, but it is expected that UNMOVIC chief Hans Blix will address the subject in his 14 February briefing at the UN Security Council. Speaking to reporters on 12 February, U.S. Ambassador to the UN John Negroponte said, "I think the experts found that the Al-Sumud is in breach of the 150-kilometer limits," adding, "Let's see what Dr. Blix recommends," AP reported.

In his 27 January briefing to the UN Security council, Blix told the council that the Al-Sumud 2 and the Al-Fatah missiles have both shown in tests to exceed the permitted range of 150 kilometers, but added that the matter was still under investigation. He said that the Al-Sumud's diameter has been modified to 760-millimeters despite a 1994 UNSCOM directive instructing Iraq to limit missile diameters to less than 600-millimeters. Blix also noted that Iraq has refurbished its missile-production infrastructure -- meaning it has "reconstituted a number of casting chambers, which had previously been destroyed under UNSCOM supervision." Blix added that as late as December 2002 Iraq had imported, despite sanctions, up to 380 rocket engines that could be used for the Al-Sumud 2 missile. Finally, he claimed Iraq has illegally imported chemicals for rocket propellants (see RFE/RL "Iraq Report," 2 February 2003). International missile experts met at the UN to study the Al-Sumud 2 and Al-Fatah missile evidence on 10-11 February, AP reported. (Kathleen Ridolfo)

ICG RELEASES REPORT ON KURDISH ISLAMIST GROUPS. The Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG) released a report on 7 February titled, "Radical Islam in Iraqi Kurdistan: The Mouse that Roared?" The report gives a detailed analysis of the history, politics, and interrelationships of radical Islamist movements in northern Iraq. The report contends that, "No independent sources have ever been presented to corroborate the link between Ansar [Al-Islam] and Al-Qaeda." Regarding a link between the Iraqi regime of Saddam Husayn and Ansar Al-Islam, the report states, "A strong connection between Saddam Husayn and Ansar Al-Islam is extremely unlikely. If Baghdad gives any support to Ansar, it is likely to be in the form of financial assistance and to be motivated by a desire to keep a finger in the pot, stir up trouble among the Kurds, and keep the PUK on the defensive, rather than strategic allegiance with Ansar's cause." The report is on the ICG's website ( (Kathleen Ridolfo)

U.S. DETAILS PLANS FOR POST-WAR IRAQ. U.S. Undersecretary for Defense Douglas Feith addressed the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee on 11 February on U.S. objectives in a postwar Iraq. Feith identified five U.S. objectives: the liberation of the Iraqi people; the elimination of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction (WMD); the elimination of its terrorist infrastructure; the safeguarding of its territorial integrity; and the beginning of its political and economic reconstruction.

Feith told the Senate committee "The coalition officials responsible for postconflict administration of Iraq -- whether military or civilian, from the various agencies of the governments -- will report to the president [of the U.S.] through [U.S.] General Tom Franks, the commander of the U.S. Central Command [CENTCOM], and the [U.S.] secretary of defense." He added that the U.S. administration has established a postwar planning office, the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance. The department, located in the Policy Planning Directorate at the U.S. Department of Defense, will coordinate and establish links with the UN agencies and international NGOs that will be active in a postwar Iraq. Feith said that the employees of this office will deploy to Iraq in the event of war, and added, "The immediate responsibility for administering postwar Iraq" will fall in the hands of CENTCOM Commander Franks. In addition, there are three civilian coordinators assigned to run operations in the civil administration, humanitarian, and reconstruction sectors. Feith also stated that a fourth coordinator will be responsible for managing budgetary support, communications, and logistics.

Feith noted that interagency groups are planning for the distribution of aid, as well as postwar elimination of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), and "vetting current Iraqi officials to determine with whom we should work." Moreover, CENTCOM has established a "Combined Joint Task Force" which will oversee U.S. and coalition forces in the postwar phase, in coordination with the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance.

The U.S. is expecting the Iraqi people to take an active role in the reconstruction process as well, Feith told the Senate committee. He recommended that an Iraqi consultative council be set up to advise U.S. and coalition forces, and that a judicial council begin work immediately to reform Iraq's legal structure. Feith also called for local elections to be held "soon after liberation," and that a new constitution be drawn up immediately. "Many have thought that our plans for Iraq are based on what the Allies did in Germany after World War II. But that is not the case. Our intention, in case of war, would be to liberate Iraq, not to occupy it," Feith concluded. (Kathleen Ridolfo)

GERMANY, U.S. EXCHANGE VIEWS ON BIN LADEN TAPE. Germany went head-to-head with the U.S. over whether or not the taped message of Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden points to a link between Al-Qaeda and Iraq. On 12 February, German government spokesman Thomas Steg told a news conference, "From what is known so far we don't think we can conclude that there is evidence of an axis or close link between the regime in Baghdad and Al-Qaeda," Reuters reported. Meanwhile, White House Spokesman Ari Fleischer said in a 12 February daily briefing, "Well, I think it just shows that Germany, which is unalterably opposed to the use of force, will still be in denial about Osama bin Laden's links to Iraq." Fleischer attempted to explain the U.S. contention of a linkage between Al-Qaeda and the Iraqi regime by saying, "So it's incomprehensible in its denial for anybody to interpret the phrase, 'it will not hurt under these circumstances if the interests of the Muslims will meet with the socialists in fighting the crusaders.' The interests of the Muslims meet with Saddam Hussein, that is linkage." Fleischer's comments can be viewed at: ( (Kathleen Ridolfo)

RUSSIA OFFERS PLANE TO UN INSPECTORS. Russian Air Force spokesman Colonel Aleksandr Drobyshevskii announced that Russian aircraft equipped for surveillance will be demonstrated on 11 February at an air base at Kubinka, near Moscow, ITAR-TASS reported. Russia offered the use of reconnaissance planes on 7 February in an effort to break the impasse between Iraq and UN inspectors over the use of U.S. U-2 spy planes. There was no response from Baghdad or the UN about Moscow's offer. (Kathleen Ridolfo)

IS NATO IMPASSE A PRELUDE TO SECURITY COUNCIL DEBATE? The 10 February veto against initiating NATO planning to support Turkey militarily in the event of a U.S.-led war in Iraq might signify larger problems for the United States and Great Britain when the UN Security Council meets next on 14 February to hear a report by UNMOVIC Chairman Hans Blix and his IAEA counterpart Muhammad el-Baradei. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Zhang Qiyue expressed China's support on 11 February for the French, Belgian, and German NATO veto, telling a news conference that China "supports any effort that is beneficial to settling the Iraq issue politically," Reuters reported.

Meanwhile, an unnamed source within the German government told Reuters that Britain, Bulgaria, and Spain are the only Security Council members supporting the U.S. position on Iraq. Russian President Vladimir Putin stated that Russia and France "have a common position" concerning Iraq, but tempered the international debate on 10 February, stating, "A clash of opinions and views as such is not damaging at all. The important thing is that this clash of opinions, this confrontation should remain peaceful and that all discussions are held within certain rules which are nothing else but international law," NTV reported. Putin arrived in France on 10 February for a three-day visit with President Jacques Chirac and other top French officials. (Kathleen Ridolfo)

SOME FELLOW NATO MEMBERS REFUSE TO BACK MILITARY SUPPORT FOR TURKEY. NATO members France, Belgium, and Germany have formally vetoed a U.S.-proposed military-support package for Turkey in the event of a U.S.-led strike against Iraq, AP reported on 10 February. Belgian Foreign Minister Louis Michel said on 9 February that it is still too soon for NATO to decide on such matters, adding, "It would signify that we have already entered into the logic of war, that...any chance, any initiative to still resolve the conflict in a peaceful way was gone," AP reported. Meanwhile, French Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie reportedly stated: "If Turkey was really under threat, France would be one of the first at its side.... Today we don't feel that threat is there," AP reported. A veto by any one NATO member would prevent the alliance from considering any proposals to start planning military support. (Kathleen Ridolfo)

TURKEY INVOKES NATO'S ARTICLE 4. In response to the triple veto, Turkey invoked Article 4 of NATO's founding treaty in an emergency session on 10 February. That article states: "The parties will consult together whenever, in the opinion of any of them, the territorial integrity, political independence, or security of any of the parties is threatened" ( The move by Turkey marks the first time in the alliance's history that Article 4 has been invoked, AP reported. (Kathleen Ridolfo)

A FRENCH-GERMAN PLAN ON IRAQ? German Defense Minister Peter Struck has confirmed the existence of a Franco-German plan to avert a U.S.-led war in Iraq, reported on 10 February. The plan, reportedly called the "Mirage" project, was detailed in the German weekly "Der Spiegel" on 9 February. It calls for tripling the number of UN inspectors on the ground, as well as the "placement of thousands of UN soldiers in Iraq to help facilitate the inspection process," "Der Spiegel" reported. The plan also calls for the use of French Mirage IV reconnaissance aircraft to support the inspections from the air. "Der Spiegel" speculated that the plan will be presented at the next Security Council meeting on Iraq, which is scheduled for 14 February. However, French officials deny the existence of such a plan. Foreign Ministry Deputy Spokesman Bernard Valero said, "France confirms that there is no Franco-German secret plan on the disarmament of Iraq," AFP reported on 9 February. Valero did say, however, that France is consulting with Germany over ideas presented by French Foreign Minister Villepin to the UN Security Council session on 5 February.

Responding to rumors of a Franco-German plan to disarm Iraq, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell told ABC's "This Week" program on 9 February, "If it is a plan that ignores continued Iraqi noncompliance and says the solution is more inspectors, that doesn't solve the problem. It is attacking the problem in the wrong way. It is not the need for more inspectors; it is the need for Iraqi compliance."

Meanwhile, UNMOVIC Chairman Blix told reporters on 10 February, "The principal problem is not the number of inspectors but rather the active cooperation of the Iraqi side, as we have said many times," Reuters reported. (Kathleen Ridolfo)


By Tanya Goudsouzian

Sulaymaniyah, Iraqi Kurdistan -- "Do you want to meet one of the suicide bombers?" asked the prison guard. "If you like, you can take a picture of him wearing his TNT vest!"

Journalists are strongly encouraged to visit the detention center in Sulaymaniyah, where about 20 inmates are held in solitary confinement. The conditions are cozy, in spite of the threat these people pose to security. Some belong to the extremist Ansar Al-Islam group; others are Arabs with suspected links to Al-Qaeda. There are a few individuals who were captured on charges of spying for the Iraqi regime.

They are kept in small rooms without heating, but they are provided with several woolen blankets. Qais Ibrahim is even given books to pass the time.

"He likes Islamic books, so that's what we give him," said Colonel Hassan, Chief of Investigations at the center, flashing a grin. Qais, 27, shrugged his shoulders.

"They think that by depriving me of television, they are doing me a disservice. They don't realize that I don't care much for television," he replied sardonically. "This is a place for common criminals."

Qais was arrested 10 months ago for attempting to assassinate Dr. Barham Salih, prime minister of areas controlled by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) in northern Iraq. Upon capture, he confessed to his charges immediately -- and proudly. He was ready even eager -- to be "martyred" for his cause. But the Kurdish authorities threw him in jail instead.

"Kurdistan is not a country, so we cannot make up any laws on how to treat different types of prisoners. We still follow the punitive laws of Iraq," said Hassan. "We don't have special laws for terrorists, so at the moment, they are treated either as murderers or political prisoners."

Qais is a follower of Ansar Al-Islam (Supporters of Islam), a Kurdish extremist group, which emerged days before the 11 September terrorist attacks on the United States. The group counts over 600 members, including some 150 Arabs from Iraq, Jordan, Palestine, and Syria. There are indications that they have amassed sympathizers among Sunni Kurds in Iran. Recently, they may have absorbed a large influx of Taliban fighters from Afghanistan, where most of the group's leadership received training.

Mullah Krekar (a.k.a. Najm al-Din Faraj Ahmad), the group's "amir," is a Kurdish radical who went to Afghanistan in 1984. He returned to Iraq in 1991 and later went with his family to Norway as refugees. He was arrested in Holland in September and released on 13 January and flown to Norway. He was given asylum by Oslo but violated it when he returned to Iraq several times over the last few years. Jordan is seeking his extradition though Norway has not yet decided if it will comply with that request, allow him to stay in Norway, or to expel him.

Krekar's deputy, Saadun Mahmoud Abdullatif Alani (codename: Abu Wa'el), is an Iraqi Arab who also received training in Afghanistan. He is alleged to have direct contact with Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

Ansar's leaders have waged a "holy war" against the ruling Kurdish parties, which they consider "secular" and as "agents of Zionism and Christianity." For two years, they have carried out nightly terror campaigns on the citizens of Halabja and over a dozen neighboring villages.

Since the American administration made public its intentions to oust Iraqi President Saddam Husayn, Ansar's links to Al-Qaeda have been magnified -- and "confirmed" more recently through reports that the group has given shelter to suspected leading Al-Qaeda officer Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian national.

As such, the Kurdish extremist group may be the key to a U.S.-led attack on Iraq. If the arms inspectors fail to deliver the justification for an offensive, "state-sponsored terrorism" may serve the purpose.

The attempt on the prime minister's life last April may have been orchestrated by al-Zarqawi, who is supposed to have met with Qais in Jordan weeks before the event.

After passing through Jordan and Yemen, where he is said to have met with other members of Al-Qaeda, Qais returned to northern Iraq and volunteered to take part in the assassination attempt on Salih.

"There were several reasons why we targeted the prime minister," he said. "In order to establish the foundations of an Islamic state, you must first eliminate those elements within the existing system who would not support our objective."

Salih lived in the United States for many years before he was appointed prime minister. For this reason, Islamist leaders consider him as pro-American and an "infidel."

The prime minister may have emerged unscathed, but Qais does not consider the operation a failure: "It was a success. Even if we did not kill him, we got our message across, and that is what matters."

According to Dr. Khasro Gul Muhammad, the PUK's chief of security, the inmates are treated humanely in order to show them the difference between the Iraqi regime and the Kurdish administration.

"When they are captured and taken to our prisons they are surprised that we do not beat them or torture them. This shows them what we are all about," he said, adding that many Ansar followers are less than 18-years-old.

He explained why it has been "very difficult" to combat the threat posed by Ansar Al-Islam.

"They are based in the very confined region of Biyara. It is a mountainous area near the Iranian border. They attack the nearby villages at night, and then they run to hide in the mountains," he said. "It is hard to get to them because they have forces stationed on the left, and forces on the right. Behind them there is Iran, even though we have no proof that Iran is supporting them."

Despite the odds, Khasro said the Kurdish security apparatus has managed to infiltrate their ranks.

"They have set up terrorist training grounds in Biyara and we have received reports that they are experimenting with chemical substances," he said.

Still, there are many who doubt whether Ansar is indeed the crucial link between Husayn and Al-Qaeda. Cynics believe the link is hyped up for two main reasons: to give the U.S. an excuse to remove Husayn from power and at the same time get rid of a thorn in the side of the PUK.

The Ansar question has been an especially heavy burden for PUK leader Jalal Talabani, as Halabja falls under the de facto jurisdiction of Sulaymaniyah, a PUK stronghold.

According to several PUK sources, plans to attack Ansar Al-Islam depend upon assistance from the Americans. The only possible way to effectively target the group is an air raid, which is beyond the capability of the Kurdish militias.

Observers believe that the war on Iraq may begin with American troops entering northern Iraq under the pretext of helping to defeat terrorism. Mission accomplished, the troops would then move south to Baghdad.

On 9 February, Ansar militants assassinated Shawkat Haji Mushir, a senior PUK military commander, in an ambush in Halabja. Some speculate the assassination was a show of Ansar's anger over PUK's pleas for U.S. air strikes against the group.

This move, however, may prove to serve Kurdish interests. The authorities in Sulaymaniyah must continue to showcase the threat of an extremist Islamist group in its midst. After all, it is the only trump card in the hands of Iraq's Kurdish population.

"Do you want to meet the man who killed the commander? Would you like a photo of him holding a rifle?" the prison guard asks.