- The Washington Times - Friday, March 21, 2003

WASHINGTON, March 21 (UPI) — U.S. Tomahawk cruise missiles began hitting positions for suspected al-Qaida organization, Ansar al-Islam in northern Iraq Friday, according to Kurdish officials.

"The first wave of attacks included 15 tomahawk cruise missiles, a second wave of attack in the early hours of (Saturday) morning included 26 or 27 cruise missiles," Qubad Talabani, the deputy Washington representative for the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan told United Press International Friday.

The attack, which began at midnight in northern Iraq would be one of the first strikes on al-Qaida target in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Talabani, reading from electronic reports from PUK military command in Suliminiyah, said the strikes were focused on the northern Iraqi cities of Biyara and Tawela, where PUK forces had surrounded the Ansar al-Islam encampments. Talabani said the PUK forces were arrayed in offensive positions surrounding the group poised for "mopping up and cleaning up." He added, "It is our mission to obliterate this group."

Last January, the PUK brought Ansar al-Islam to the attention of the CIA and offered them access to members of the group held in their prisons. In February, Secretary of State Colin Powell told the U.N. Security Council that "Baghdad has an agent in the most senior levels of the radical organization Ansar al-Islam." He added, "In 2000, this agent offered al-Qaida safe haven in the region."

The main evidence against group revolves around Abu Wa'il, an al Qaida money man who has also provided some funding to Ansar al Islam and is likely on Saddam's payroll. Jonathan Schanzer, an analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, wrote in a paper this month that Kurdish authorities had found TNT made in Iraq in a recent raid on the group's headquarters.

This spring, Ansar attempted to assassinate Barham Salih, prime minister for the PUK. And the PUK's fighters have conducted numerous operations against the organization's stronghold in Biyara on the Iran-Iraq border. During these raids, PUK officials say they gathered evidence — including the testimony of captured Ansar personnel — documenting the group's links to the Iraqi regime.

Last month, the Norwegian government began proceedings to extradite the group's leader Mullah Krekar. Krekar has denied any links between his organization and al-Qaida.

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