U.S. special forces are scouring this remote frontier region for evidence to back up White House allegations that Saddam Hussein’s regime is linked to the al-Qaida terrorist network. While sources familiar with the operation say there is not yet a “smoking gun” that establishes a clear link between the Iraqi leader and al-Qaida, American experts have uncovered evidence that al-Qaida militants operated openly here, possibly producing chemical weapons.
Over the last two days, U.S. military Chemical-Biological Survey teams, or CBSs, have visited a handful of training camps belonging to Ansar al-Islam, a Kurdish radical Islamic group Washington says has received support from both Saddam and al-Qaida.
An apparently successful joint Kurdish-American operation to destroy Ansar al-Islam’s bases in northeastern Iraq has allowed U.S. special forces to move swiftly to sites in the rocky border region between Iraq and Iran.
The Ansar al-Islam training camps here bear a striking resemblance to al-Qaida bases in Afghanistan, thriving in desolate areas beyond the control of local officials.
The Bush administration’s allegations that Saddam has supported al-Qaida elements in northern Iraq underpin Washington’s reasoning for trying to remove Saddam from power.
An American officer familiar with the search for evidence said detailed recipes for toxins and chemical agents had been discovered in the Ansar al-Islam camps. Also recovered were page-by-page translations of U.S. military tactical warfare training manuals.
“I can’t go into details,” said the officer, speaking on condition of anonymity. “But there’s no doubt that these guys were up to no good.”
CBS teams have taken soil samples from several Ansar al-Islam camps, he said. The samples will be subjected to independent testing.
In his Feb. 5 report to the U.N. Security Council laying out the case for ousting Saddam, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said that Ansar al-Islam had established a “terrorist poison and explosives factory” in northern Iraq. Powell said Saddam had sent an agent to help with the group’s militant activities.
InsertArt(1847274)Over the last week, U.S. special forces and anti-Saddam Kurdish fighters have overrun the alleged factories and camps, where some 700 militants lived and trained. Thirty U.S. cruise missiles were used to destroy one facility alone. Scores of militants were killed in the attacks, though Kurdish officials admit hundreds may have fled to the hills, or to neighboring Iran.
When the bombing ceased on Friday, American chemical and biological weapons experts descended on the area.
Local Kurdish civilians who lived around the camps say foreigners from Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Sudan lived and trained in the area. Kurdish and U.S. officials say Ansar al-Islam became a “safe haven” for al-Qaida fighters who fled Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban in November 2001.
The inhabitants of the camps appeared to beat a quick retreat when American bombs began falling 10 days ago. Outside what appeared to be a sleeping and dining facility, 20 pairs of shoes were left by the door. Clothes and food, still fresh, were strewn around a six-room building. Large stockpiles of live ammunition were also left behind.
Proving a link between Saddam and Islamists in a region not controlled by the Iraqi leader will be difficult for the Bush administration. Iraq’s Kurdish minority has controlled the north for a decade, though Saddam’s intelligence agents regularly pass back and forth, according to Kurdish officials.
Saddam is a secularist leader who banished the fiery brand of Islam familiar to al-Qaida followers. Still, U.S. officials say the Saddam and the religious extremists have been drawn together by their common anti-American positions.
Sources familiar with the ongoing U.S. effort to tie al-Qaida to Saddam say they are confident the evidence gathered so far in northern Iraq will eventually confirm a relationship.
One source, who requested anonymity, said it was just a matter of “connecting the dots.”
“There is plenty here that demonstrates al-Qaida’s presence. And there is plenty pointing to a concerted effort to produce chemical weapons,” he said.
(MSNBC.com’s Preston Mendenhall is on assignment in northern Iraq.)