- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 9, 2003

SULAYMANIYAH, Iraq The jumble of secret alliances in northern Iraq turned tragic last week when Kurdish authorities gunned down a group of friendly Islamists in an attempt to protect Americans from terrorists affiliated with Osama bin Laden.
Local security forces were on the lookout for carloads of Islamic militants from the group Ansar al Islam, an Iranian-backed group holed up in the mountains of eastern Iraq.
Ansar guerrillas, who frequently exchange fire with local Kurdish authorities, were said to have been scouting sites frequented by American operatives.
On Tuesday, five bearded men lay dead, their bodies riddled with bullets, the windows of their white Toyota Land Cruiser shattered and the pavement stained with blood.
They were the wrong Islamists. They belonged to the Islamic Group of Kurdistan, a group with friendly ties to the Kurdish authorities.
Officials apologized for the incident, expressing regret for the loss of life and announced an investigation.
"If there are people who have overreacted and did not adhere to the rules of engagement, there will be repercussions for those involved," said Barham Salih, prime minister of the eastern half of the Kurdish autonomous area.
Their quick, violent deaths illustrate the tricky ground-level political minefield the United States will enter if it decides to use northern Iraq as a staging point to attack Baghdad.
Since its establishment following the 1991 Gulf war, the northern Kurdish-run section of Iraq has become a relatively prosperous enclave where people enjoy many of the civil liberties denied those living in other Middle Eastern countries.
But that freedom also has produced an often-confusing mix of political parties, armed militias and ethnic groups. Pro-Kurdish Turkoman groups vie for legitimacy against anti-Kurdish Turkoman groups with strong ties to the government in Ankara. An Assyrian party claims to represent northern Iraq's Christians but is distrusted by the mostly Chaldean Christian community.
Pro-government Islamic groups are distinguished from vehemently anti-Western ones only by a single letter in their acronyms and, in some cases, by the length of their beards. Many of the groups are armed.
"There are many groups with their own militias," Mr. Salih said in an interview. "We can't deny anyone the right to organize their militia."
The apparent peace established in 1998 between the two main Kurdish groups the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) appears threatened by simmering blood feuds and dangerous machinations.
The Patriotic Union, for example, invited the predecessors of Ansar al Islam to hole up in the mountains near the Iranian border after the KDP kicked them out.
"Unfortunately, the brothers from other side thought that, if a group is opposed to the Kurdistan Democratic Party, they must be very important and helped them out," Nechirwan Barzani, prime minister of the KDP-controlled section autonomous zone, said in a separate interview.
Ansar, believed to harbor al Qaeda fugitives from Afghanistan, has terrorized the area. Late last month, a suicide bomber killed himself and three others at a checkpoint on the road to Halabja, near Ansar's stronghold in the mountain village of Biyare.
In early February, Ansar militants posing as defectors lured a prominent Patriotic Union leader to his death. In December, Ansar killed scores of Patriotic Union soldiers during an early morning raid on a military outpost.
In April 2002, Islamic militants attempted to assassinate Mr. Salih, killing members of his entourage.
Almost all the incidents have left innocent bystanders, including children, dead or wounded. Patriotic Union officials have been seeking revenge.
In the killings Tuesday, officials of the PUK, which runs the eastern half of the Kurdish autonomous area, apparently mistook the Islamic Group's Land Cruiser which included Abdulla Qasri, a prominent politician in the organization for one of three cars that had been spotted spying on airstrips and homes of government officials said to be frequented by the small number of U.S. clandestine services operatives here.
Spent casings littered the ground near the checkpoint as Patriotic Union officials dragged bloody corpses into pickup trucks. Counterterrorism officers led by Bafel Talabani, son of leader Jalal Talabani came quickly to the scene and claimed they had scored a victory against Ansar.
A few hours later, government officials retracted the Ansar story and conceded the possibility of a mistake.

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