SULAIMANIYA, Iraq Kurdish leaders say they have eyewitness accounts, prisoners’ confessions and seized evidence to support claims by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell that an al Qaeda-linked group backed by Saddam Hussein has established a “poison factory” in northeastern Iraq.
They also say they have captured Iraqi military officers sent by Saddam to liaise with the Islamic radicals, providing evidence of a direct link between al Qaeda and the Iraqi leadership.
Mr. Powell, in his dramatic presentation to the United Nations Security Council Feb. 5, said an extremist group was running a terrorist-training center and poison factory in the small area of Iraq it controls near the Iranian border.
He said the program was supported by Abu Musaab Zarqawi who has been identified as a lieutenant of Osama bin Laden and implicated in the killing of a U.S. diplomat in Jordan in October.
As Mr. Powell spoke, a monitor displayed a photograph with the caption: “Terrorist Poison and Explosives Factory, Khurmal.”
Mr. Powell was referring to Ansar al-Islam, a militant group of 600 to 700 fighters, many of them trained in bin Laden’s camps in Afghanistan before making their way to the Zagros Mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan in 2001.
An Ansar attack in December killed scores of troops of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), which runs the eastern half of the autonomous zone enforced in northern Iraq by U.S. and British aircraft since the 1991 Persian Gulf war.
Sadi Ahmad Pire, a high-level official of the PUK, pinpointed the village of Sargat near the Khurmal district as the site of the chemical-weapons plant.
“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 a Kurdish intelligence chief, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The intelligence officer also said the PUK has captured “several” former Iraqi military and intelligence officers who confessed to being sent from Baghdad-controlled parts of Iraq to meet with Ansar al-Islam. The seized evidence, PUK officers said, includes poison cigarettes and paint.
Ansar al-Islam’s leader, Najm al-Din Faraj Ahmad, commonly known as Mullah Krekar, has vehemently denied any links with al Qaeda or Baghdad, and independent analysts say they have been unable to verify American claims of a link.
“It’s not corroborated by other sources,” said Robert Malley, Middle East director for the International Crisis Group in Washington. “That does not mean there have not been some contacts … but given the geography, Ansar would appear to be more dependent on certain groups in Iran.”
The Kurdish claims, if confirmed, would support U.S. claims that Saddam is directly helping and backing Ansar al-Islam .
The Kurds also say they have linked the group to Qeyes Ibrahim Qader an Islamic militant captured while trying to assassinate PUK-region Prime Minister Barham Salih last year.
The say Qader admitted he was acting on orders received in the town of Biyare from a man he later identified as Zarqawi.