Group linked to al-Qaida plans chemical attacks, official says

Thursday, August 22, 2002

ANKARA, Turkey -- A top Iraqi Kurdish official said Wednesday that Arab radicals linked to al-Qaida were experimenting with chemical weapons for terror attacks in a laboratory in a remote part of Iraqi Kurdish territory.

Barham Salih, a top leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan or PUK, spoke a few days after meeting with Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld in Washington to talk about possible U.S. plans for military action against Iraq.

PUK intelligence "confirms the existence of a facility experimenting with poison and chemical agents to be used in terrorist acts," Salih said in a telephone interview from Washington.

He refused to give any details of what evidence the PUK had that the chemical weapons were to be used in terror attacks.

Salih said that PUK forces were about 30 miles from the area of the laboratory, which he said was run by the radical group Ansar al-Islam, allegedly linked to al-Qaida.

The radical group is based in several villages near the Iranian border.

U.S. officials in Washington have said they have been monitoring the site, where they said chemical or biological weapons experiments were conducted on farm animals and at least one person, a man who died. But officials said Tuesday they had decided the site was not a serious enough threat to justify a military strike.

Still, Ansar al-Islam is of growing concern to the United States, the officials said. The group has sheltered al-Qaida fighters fleeing the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan, they said.

Ansar has some 500 members, about 120 of whom trained in Afghanistan, Salih said.

The group operates well outside the sphere of influence of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. Some U.S. officials say the group also opposes Saddam's government, though others believe he tacitly or directly supports it to make trouble for his Kurdish opponents.

PUK fighters have clashed repeatedly with militants from Ansar. In July, nine PUK fighters were killed and 50 injured in a firefight with Ansar militants. Salih refused to say if the PUK was planning further military action.

The PUK has said that an assassination attempt against Salih in April in the PUK's main city of Sulaymaniyah was carried out by Ansar militants. Salih escaped unharmed. Visiting State Department officials led by Ryan Crocker, a deputy assistant secretary of state, were meeting with Kurdish officials when the attack took place and many were close enough to have heard the gunshots.

Some experts have said that Ansar al-Islam receives weapons from Iran in an attempt to pressure the PUK not to build closer ties with the United States, but Salih said there was no evidence of Iranian involvement. "The Iranians are emphatic that this group is a threat to their own security," he said.

The PUK and a rival group in the autonomous Kurdish region can mobilize some 70,000 fighters and are considered crucial to a possible U.S. attack on Iraq.

Salih said that while U.S. officials often visit the Kurdish region, there are currently no American soldiers in the PUK-controlled areas.

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