- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 22, 2003

SULEIMANIAH, Iraq, March 22 (UPI) — A high-ranking Kurdish official said Saturday that forces of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan were coordinating with U.S. forces against Ansar al-Islam, an Islamist group in the Kurdish enclave in Northern Iraq.

PUK official Kosert Rasoul told United Press International that its forces were progressing toward Ansar al-Islam strongholds in the villages of Bayara and Taweelah near the Iraqi-Iranian border. Rasoul also said their soldiers were fighting along side U.S. forces, though U.S. Central Command would not confirm the report.

The PUK, led by Jalal Talabani, is one of two groups that controls the Kurdish enclave in Northern Iraq. The region has enjoyed virtual autonomy in the last decade under the protection of a U.S. and British-enforced no-fly zone. Iraqi forces under the orders of Baghdad attacked the Kurds after the 1991 Gulf War, and the people of this mountainous clan-based culture hold little love for Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

In a separate incident in the area controlled by Ansar al-Islam, five people were reported killed in a suicide bombing at a PUK checkpoint near the town of Halabja. The bomber drove up in a car and detonated the device, killing himself and an Australian journalist filming nearby. The other dead were Kurdish fighters of the PUK, an independent observer told UPI.

The bomber's identity was unclear, but Kurdish sources suggested he was associated with Ansar al-Islam. The PUK suspects Islamic Kurd group has links to al-Qaida terror network as well as the Iraqi government in Baghdad.

U.S. forces have been gathering in Northern Iraq in anticipation of launching a move toward Iraq's oil-rich centers in the north, on the periphery of the Kurdish enclave. Securing Kirkuk, Mosul and other cities in Northern Iraq gained new urgency since Thursday as reports came in that Iraqi forces had fired oil wells while retreating from oil fields in southern Iraq.

One of the stated aims of the U.S-led war in Iraq is to "secure the oil fields, resources which belong to the Iraqi people," according to the U.S. defense secretary and the head of U.S. forces in the region.

Whether Kurdish forces will be a part of that action is still in question, however. Turkey, a NATO ally of the United States, which has given overflight rights to coalition forces, does not want the Iraqi Kurds armed as they fear unrest among their own Kurdish population.

Rasoul said Saturday that PUK forces were about to take control of the positions of Ansar al-Islam and "put an end to the influence of that fundamentalist group which carried out terrorist attacks that damaged sacred placed in Kurdistan."

The PUK spokesman emphasized that his group and the Kurdistan Democratic Party, which share control of the Kurdish enclave in Northern Iraq, were cooperating with U.S. forces as well as each other in the advance against Ansar al-Islam.

He and a PUK spokesman in Washington, Qabad Talbani, said U.S. troops on Friday night attacked Ansar al-Islam positions around Bayara and Taweelah and that U.S. carrier groups in the Red Sea had launched about 70 missiles in coordination of the attack. They added some three dozen bodies were removed Saturday from under the rubble of destroyed buildings following the U.S. missile attack against Ansar al-Islam sites.

Maj. Rumi Nielson-Green in the Central Command headquarters in Qatar said she could not confirm the account nor the cooperation between U.S. and Kurdish forces.

The attack against Ansar al-Islam sites coincided with the arrival of 18 American helicopters at Bakrcu Airport, eight kilometers (five miles) west of Suleimaniya, Rasoul said. Suleimaniya is the administrative center of the PUK.

In Arbil, the base of the other Kurdish group the KDP, politburo member Hishiar Zibari denied reports that about 1,000 Turkish troops had moved into Northern Iraq, adding Kurdish fighters would "staunchly resist any infiltration by Turkish forces" into Northern Iraq.

The Iraqi Kurds remember the bloody clashes between Turkish Kurds and Turkish troops in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the separatist guerilla group the Kurdish Workers' Party launched a campaign for an independent Kurdish state.

Turkey has said its troops are poised along the border between Turkey and Iraq to handle an expected influx of refugees. But on Friday U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said the United States "saw no need" for Turkey to enter Iraq, prompting the Turkish government to temporarily suspend on Friday its overflight permission to coalition forces.

Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul declared: "We don't want to re-live the problem of 1991. Northern Iraq was a vacuum, and this vacuum created the terrorist activity which we don't want to happen again." The Kurdish Workers Party, known by its Turkish initials PKK, fled from Turkish troops into Northern Iraq during its separatist fight.

The United States fears a new conflict may erupt between Turkish and Kurdish forces in Northern Iraq if Ankara moves more troops to join the estimated 7,000 already in the area.

On Saturday Gen. Tommy Franks, head of CentCom, described the Turkish troop movements into Iraq as "light" and "moving in and out." But the political discussion about the issue is "above my pay grade," he added.

Observers say the dominant reason for Turkey's resolve to move into Iraq is to prevent the Kurds from taking advantage of the present conflict in Iraq to form a breakaway independent state. The Turks fear a Kurdish state on their doorstep could incite their own Kurdish minority — at 12 million about 20 percent of its population — to seek independence.

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