- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 10, 2002

From combined dispatches

TUNCELI, Turkey Violent clashes between Iraqi Kurd peshmerga, those who face death, and militant Islamists have erupted in northern Iraq, killing more than 20 people, according to a Kurdish official.

Gunbattles broke out late last week between the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and militants aligned with the shadowy Jund al-Islam, accused of ties with Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network, a PUK official in northern Iraq told Reuters news agency in eastern Turkey by satellite telephone.

The PUK is one of two Kurdish factions sharing control of northern Iraq.

The other major group is the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) led by Massoud Barzani.

"The PUK has responded to attacks on civilians and PUK peshmerga fighters by radical Islamists who have been active for some time in the region, especially around the city of Halabja," the official said Monday.

At least nine PUK fighters and 12 Islamists were killed in the fighting, which was continuing, he said. The official added that "quite a few" civilians had been killed or wounded, but he could not provide figures for civilian casualties.

He said about 2,000 peshmerga were involved in the clashes.

In a separate development, a PUK official in Sulaimaniya, Iraq, told Agence France-Presse yesterday that PUK leader Jalal Talabani is in Saudi Arabia at the invitation of officials there to discuss issues related to the situation in Iraq.

Sulaymaniya is the main town in that part of the Kurdish enclave that the PUK controls.

Mr. Talabani arrived in Saudi Arabia on Sunday and will remain several more days, PUK foreign affairs chief Sadi Ahmad Pire told AFP.

There was no comment from Saudi officials on the visit.

Mr. Pire could not immediately provide the names of the Saudi officials with whom Mr. Talabani would meet but stressed that the visit was part of the PUK's consultations with Iraq's neighbors, which since March have included trips by Mr. Talabani to Syria, Turkey and Iran.

The PUK is eager to sound out Iraq's neighbors and exchange views with them, Mr. Pire said, adding that Mr. Talabani will visit other countries in the region, possibly including Kuwait and Jordan.

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