The morning sun rises over inhospitable rocks as wind-chilled Kurdish fighters in northern Iraq stare from a mountain rampart at their quarry below: Al Qaeda-backed Islamic militants.
The US military refrained from carrying out plans to strike the Ansar al-Islam ("Soldiers of God") stronghold last August - when intelligence reports indicated they were testing lethal chemicals. But their presence may yet affect America's Iraq strategy.
Kurdish forces facing off against some 650 members of Ansar say fighting on this front is tying up troops that could be preparing to assist with any American effort to topple the Iraq regime.
"These Islamists are like a time bomb: The minute we attack Baghdad, and leave these positions, they will attack us from behind," says Sheikh Jafar Mustapha, a senior commander of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), one of two Kurdish militias in northern Iraq.
Just a few miles wide, the sliver of Ansar- controlled turf is protected by other armed Kurdish Islamist allies on two sides, and abuts the Iranian border behind. In front, facing the PUK troops, is an impenetrable strip of landmines and explosives. "We would be happy if the Americans came here to destroy [Ansar]. They can take down the whole mountain," Sheikh Jafar says. "We can't do anything against them, though we have 25 times their number."
KURDISH sources, a ranking Ansar defector, and analysts say that Ansar numbers have grown in recent months and include 80 or so Arabs, and others trained by Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. But they say that Ansar morale has dropped, since Iran helped orchestrate the arrest of their leader, Mullah Krekar, in the Netherlands in September.
Despite past concerns that conservative elements in Iran supported this Islamist group, or at least turned a blind eye to their activities, Kurdish officials say that Iran is now promising to help them. Iran has warned Ansar to move three miles from the border - a move that would force it into the PUK front line, as well as keep any US attack away from Iran's border.
"They still pose a significant risk [within the region], and have definitely shared Al Qaeda's training structure," says Rohan Gunaratna, author of "Inside Al Qaeda: Global Network of Terror," contacted in Malaysia. He says that two of the scores of Al Qaeda training videotapes that were found in Afghanistan, and were aired by CNN in August, showed Ansar's Kurdish parent organization at work.
"They are more of a militia organization - not a typical terrorist cell," says Mr. Gunaratna, noting the Kurds' "substantial early connection" with Al Qaeda. "They are not so committed to [attacking] the West, but to local guerrilla action."
Indeed, Ansar hit squads attacked a PUK checkpoint near the town of Halabja - six miles from this front line - two weeks ago, killing three Kurds. Prior to that, a video shop was blown up - after one failed attempt - in the town of Said Sadik.
Behind such attacks is a long-range Al Qaeda plan for Kurdistan, says an Ansar defector arrested by the PUK in April when he visited an Ansar safe house in the regional capital of Sulaymaniyah, hours after a gunman sought refuge in the same house after failing in an attempt to assassinate PUK Prime Minister Barham Salih.
The details of Ansar's links with Al Qaeda in Afghanistan (a partial transcript of the Monitor interview with the defector was examined by Gunaratna) indicate that the former Ansar commander is telling the truth. The commander, interviewed in the PUK's Sulaymaniyah detention facility, asked that the pseudonym Rebwar Kadr Said be used, to protect his family.
Mr. Said says links between Kurdish Islamist groups to Afghanistan go back to the 1980s, when Abdullah Azzam, one of the founders of the Al Qaeda terrorist organization, held Mullah Krekar and a Palestinian man by the hand, and told his followers: "Take care of these two," meaning the groups each leader represented, Kurds and Palestinians.
"They dreamed of having a Taliban government in Afghanistan, a Taliban government in Kurdistan, and to join them through Iran," says Said.
Kurdish areas of northern Iraq, protected by US and British pilots enforcing a no-fly zone, were also appealing to the Al Qaeda leadership, Said says, because they could often smuggle themselves through Iran without a passport. Afghanistan could be entered the same way, from here. Iran has denied allowing any Al Qaeda members to cross its territory.
"Al Qaeda thought of having another base for themselves outside Afghanistan," says Said. "They failed in Chechnya, so they tried it here, but underground, so it was not known. They chose Kurdistan."
Though that blueprint never came to fruition, Kurdish officials say information from a variety of foreign intelligence agencies point to Kurdistan as being an important part of Al Qaeda's global plan.
"This seems to reveal a broader strategy by Osama bin Laden to seed parts of the Islamic world - where there is no real central control - with Islamist groups," says James Lindsay, a terrorism expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
"This is going to be a difficult problem for the US to confront," Mr. Lindsay says. "It suggests that, in any war with Iraq, the easy part may be the war with Baghdad. It will be more difficult to win the peace, because these groups will try to convince people that [the US] are infidels.
"Bin Laden does not put all his money on one horse - he spreads his bets around," Lindsay adds. "But he is sort of the Ford Foundation of terror, takes local groups and forms a beachhead. The problem is that the process of trying to rub it out could make it worse."
That dilemma is now absorbing Kurdish officials. "Every underground group like Al Qaeda has sleeper cells that they will wake when they need them," says Faraidoon Abdulkadir, the PUK minister in charge of internal security. "They don't have sleeper cells here - they have an army."
But Mr. Abdulkadir knows he is not alone in trying to prevent Ansar's next assassination attempt, or an urban artillery attack. "Sometimes to boost my morale, I look at America, which is huge, with all the technology and money and strength," Abdulkadir says. "And still Al Qaeda is there."
That doesn't mean that the PUK is not eager to deal with Ansar. The public was electrified in October 2001, when 42 Kurdish fighters were ambushed by Ansar, and then butchered. Video footage of the carnage, some of which ran on local television stations, sparked disgust. One man on the videotape, walking among the bodies, asks: "Is this terrorism, or the work of Islam?" It was a defining moment that forced Kurds to come to grips with the hard-core militants within their midst.
Kurdish officials liken this current front line to the Tora Bora standoff between Al Qaeda and US forces in Afghanistan late last year. Some say that Ansar has dug into the mountains, and built houses over their cave entrances in some of the 18 villages local commanders say are under Ansar control. "We can only fight Ansar from the sky, just as America fought the Taliban from the sky," says a senior Kurdish official. "This kind of work can't be done just with machine guns."
But several officials suggest that Ansar can be crushed handily with Iranian help, or even if Iran allowed the PUK - with which it has close ties - to temporarily enter Iranian territory and attack from behind. "If Iran helps the PUK to cross the border, the PUK can get rid of 80 percent of them," says defector Said. "If Iran engages itself, it would be a big victory. And if the US Air Force comes, I will not give them days, but hours. Ansar is not prepared for air attack."
The massacre of the Kurdish fighters in Oct. 2001 was the event that "made everything clear to me," says the defector. "Now I believe [Ansar] made many mistakes, that are not part of Islam.
"My thoughts and ideas have now changed," says Said, quietly. "If they did not, I would not be talking to you."