A radical Islamic group with alleged ties to the al-Qaida terrorist network was declared vanquished by Kurdish and U.S. officials on Sunday, but there were indications in this remote corner of northern Iraq that many militants from Ansar al-Islam had escaped.
After almost two weeks of heavy bombing of Ansar al-Islam, Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani said Sunday that a Kurdish-U.S. offensive against the group was successful.
“The battle against the so-called Ansar al-Islam is finished militarily,” said Talabani, the head of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, one of the two Kurdish groups that controls northern Iraq.
In the gulf state of Qatar, the wartime base of the U.S. Central Command, U.S. Gen. Tommy Franks said U.S. and Kurdish forces had destroyed a massive “terrorist facility” operated by Ansar al-Islam.
Under heavy security, Talabani toured the villages of Tawela and Biyara, where an estimated 700 members of Ansar al-Islam forced the local population to adhere to their austere brand of Islam, much like the Taliban in Afghanistan.
While scores of militants were killed in the battle, Talabani acknowledged many were not found during a search of the site. Asked whether any leaders of Ansar al-Islam had been captured, he said, “They escaped.”
“Perhaps there will remain some remnants of the terrorists in towns and villages,” Talabani said. “We are looking for them.”
The United States has placed Ansar al-Islam on its list of terrorist organizations. U.S. officials allege the group maintains ties with Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida terror network and receives some support from Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
In a speech before the U.N. Security Council in February, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell presented what he said was evidence linking Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a chief bin Laden lieutenant, to an Ansar al-Islam camp in northern Iraq. Citing intelligence sources, Powell said a representative of Saddam had offered Ansar al-Islam a “safe haven” in the region.
Ansar al-Islam, which means “supporters of Islam,” is based in Kurdish-controlled northeastern Iraq, along the border with Iran.
’ARABS’ IN AREA
Interviews with local villagers and evidence displayed Sunday by Kurdish officials appeared to support U.S. claims that al-Qaida supporters, fleeing the Taliban’s collapse in Afghanistan in November 2001, sought refuge in northern Iraq.
Reporters were shown a Moroccan passport recovered from the scene of fighting near Tawela. One page was stamped with an Iraqi visa issued in November 2002, suggesting that the passport’s owner, 30-year-old Said Hamsi, traveled to northern Iraq with the permission Saddam’s government in Baghdad.
Salih Said, a villager from Biyara, said “Arabs” — from Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria and occupied Palestinian territories — frequented the area for the last 18 months.
One of the few villagers who stayed through the assault, Said recalled how the militants prayed Friday for Saddam’s survival at the mosque in Biyara. Shortly after midday prayers, at 2 p.m. local time, a U.S. Tomahawk cruise missile hit the mosque, witnesses said.
“There were always Arabs here,” said Said, a shopkeeper. “Under them, we lived in inhuman conditions. They would reprimand us for playing music. We were told not to smoke,” he recalled of the harsh rules, apparently inspired by Taliban efforts, that were imposed on local residents.
Beyond its strict Islamic code, Ansar al-Islam appeared to have more sinister intentions. Ahmed Tawel, a 33-year-old Palestinian, said he was a member of the militia for six months until he was captured two weeks ago by Kurdish forces. He is now in prison.
“I know a lot about explosive detonators,” he said in an interview from jail in northern Iraq. “Two of my brothers were killed by the Israelis, so I came here to learn more.”
Tawel confirmed allegations made by Kurdish officials that a spate of suicide bombings in recent weeks, targeting Kurdish leaders and Western journalists, were carried out by Ansar al-Islam. “We’re here for jihad,” Tawel said.
CLAIMS OF WEAPONS PRODUCTION
At U.S. Central Command headquarters in Qatar, officials said Sunday that more than 50 Tomahawk cruise missiles had been fired against Ansar al-Islam targets, including a mountain camp which U.S. officials alleged was capable of producing the deadly poison ricin and, possibly, weapons of mass destruction. Centcom officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said U.S. special forces were “exploiting” the site for evidence of such production facilities. Large quantities of ammunition, including surface-to-air missiles, mortars and large-caliber weapons had been seized, they said.
U.S. and Kurdish officials both said the death toll inflicted on Ansar al-Islam was high, but gave conflicting information.
Franks said that some 120 militants had been killed. In northern Iraq, Kurdish leader Talabani said only 63 bodies had been recovered, although he estimated “between 250 and 300” had been killed in the operation.
Both Kurdish and U.S. officials continued to put Ansar al-Islam’s total membership at roughly 700.
Neither side provided an explanation for the missing militants, though Talabani admitted the rugged and mountainous landscape, long a friend to Kurdish forces hiding from Saddam’s military, may continue to provide refuge to Ansar al-Islam.
(MSNBC.com’s Preston Mendenhall is on assignment in Iraq)