- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 22, 2002

A new Islamic extremist group in northern Iraq is drawing increased attention from U.S. intelligence agencies for its ties to al Qaeda and interest in chemical and biological weapons, U.S. officials say.

The group, Ansar al-Islam, sent about a dozen members to training camps in Afghanistan in 1999 and 2000, where they had contact with Osama bin Laden's terror network, according to U.S. officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

A senior Iraqi Kurdish politician said yesterday that militant Islamists affiliated with al Qaeda have set up a laboratory in northern Iraq to develop poisons for "terrorist" activities.

Barham Salih of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan told Reuters news agency the militants of Ansar al-Islam were receiving external backing, but he declined to say whether the Iraqi government was providing them with direct support.

Members of the small group also have sheltered al Qaeda fighters fleeing the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan, the officials said. Many of them are moving through Iraq as they head toward home countries.

U.S. agencies recently monitored an Ansar al-Islam site in northern Iraq where chemical- or biological-weapons experiments were conducted on farm animals and at least one person, a man who died.

In particular, a biological poison, ricin, was tested.

It was feared initially that the episode might constitute a significant chemical-biological threat, but U.S. officials decided it was not serious enough to justify a military strike.

Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz told CBS News that al Qaeda elements are operating in regions controlled by Kurds. There are no al Qaeda forces in parts of Iraq controlled by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, and Iraq does not possess nuclear, chemical or biological weapons, Mr. Aziz said in the interview Tuesday night.

In an effort to topple Saddam, the United States has courted dissidents from Kurdish-controlled Iraq. Mr. Aziz questioned why American officials have not publicly raised the al Qaeda matter with those leaders.

Ansar al-Islam was formed in December 2001, one of numerous small splinter factions in northern Iraq according to U.S. officials.

Ansar has several hundred members and broke away from another group, Jun al-Islam, which had been formed three months earlier. It is an extremist offshoot of the Islamic Movement of Kurdistan, a broad political party that controls a portion of northern Iraq.

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