US troops are increasingly engaged in an attempt to eliminate a militant group of several hundred Islamist fighters in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq.
In recent days the US has been expanding its military presence in the region, in part to open an abbreviated "northern front" against areas controlled by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. But an immediate goal is also to assist Kurdish forces in the destruction of Ansar al Islam (Partisans of Islam), an 18-month-old group, linked by the US to Al Qaeda, that controls an enclave next to the Iranian border.
The US sent 40 to 50 cruise missiles into the area early Saturday morning and aerial attacks have continued intermittently ever since.
Kurdish officials say they are waiting for a US go-ahead to mount a ground assault.
But Ansar has not been the only target of US attack. Many of Saturday's cruise missiles struck areas controlled by Komala Islami Kurdistan (Islamic Group of Kurdistan), an armed but more moderate Islamist group that controls villages next to the Ansar enclave. Despite PUK assertions to the contrary, Komala leader Sheikh Ali Bapir said in an interview yesterday that his group received no warning that it would come under US attack.
The US strikes have killed 43 Komala fighters, says Mr. Bapir. According to Kamal Rahim, a senior member of the Islamic Movement of Kurdistan (IMK), a third Kurdish group that wants an Islamic government, just seven Ansar fighters have died as a result of US air assaults.
Targeting Komala may be an instance of making a problem worse in order to make it better. The group has more fighters than Ansar and Bapir says many of them now want to attack the the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), which administers the eastern portion of the Kurdish zone.
But he says his group will remain "patient," at least until the larger war to the south is concluded. The US attack against Iraq presents, he says, "a severe situation for our nation and we must take it into consideration."
Mustafa Said Qadir, a PUK military commander, estimates that Komala has no more than 1,000 fighters. Ansar is thought to include some 700 armed men. Mr. Qadir says he is assembling a force of some 6,000 PUK militiamen for a ground assault against Ansar that may include helicopter support and other assistance from US soldiers and intelligence operatives, several hundred of whom are now in the Kurdish zone.
The attacks on Komala may also reflect an inclination within the PUK to deal aggressively with its Islamist opposition. Barham Salih, the PUK prime minister, says his party advised Komala repeatedly to move away from the Ansar enclave and to sever all contacts with its members.
Ansar has waged war against the secular PUK since it emerged as a coherent group in September 2001. US and Kurdish officials assert that Ansar has ties with Al Qaeda and that its mountainous enclave - which includes some 18 villages - has served as a haven for some of its fighters.
The group has imposed a fundamentalist version of Islam on the villagers in its area, banning television, requiring beards, and insisting that stores close during Muslim prayer times. It has also distributed gory footage of its attacks against the PUK on its website.
As is true elsewhere in the Middle East, analysts caution that the popularity of Islamic politics here is more a reflection of popular frustration than a genuine response to the appeal of pious men with beards and guns. "The Islamic groups in Kurdistan are the result of civil war and the bad economic situation," says Shwan Ahmed, a writer and journalist who has studied local Islamists. "They are not the result of people's belief in the groups."
In contrast to Ansar, Komala cooperates with the PUK's administration of its region in exchange for a monthly stipend of about $250,000. The group also enforces Islamic principles but less stringent ones.
Dr. Salih says the group has continued to aid its radical brethren. "We told them you are in bad company," Salih says. "You cannot have it both ways."
Another PUK official, speaking on condition of anonymity, isn't impressed by the distinctions between the armed Islamist groups that operate in the Kurdish areas. "They are all the same to us," he says. "To eliminate them all is better," he adds. He nods his head in the affirmative when asked if "eliminate" is a euphemism for "kill."
In early March, PUK soldiers at a checkpoint outside Sulaymaniyah shot and killed a senior Komala leader, three bodyguards, and a driver. PUK officials immediately described the incident as a case of mistaken identity, explaining that they had been tracking Ansar members traveling in a similar vehicle, and apologized to Komala.
In retrospect, Bapir says the killing of his colleague now looks like a warning. The Kurdish official acknowledges that such a thing "could be."
Bapir says Komala has received a new round of apologies from PUK officials who he says have told the group that they were not aware of US plans to attack its villages. To back up this statement, he produces a handwritten letter, purportedly from PUK leader Jalal Talabani to Komala spiritual leader Sheikh Mohammed Barzinji, that Bapir says was delivered Friday evening.
He says the letter warns of an imminent US attack against Ansar, but makes no mention that Komala territory would also be struck.
Bapir says the group has asked Iraqi National Congress leader Ahmed Chalabi to explain to the US the "details and attitudes" of Komala, perhaps in an effort to ward off future US attack.
He also says he has agreed to move his group's fighters to another part of the region, away from Ansar's enclave.
That decision seems to have led to a cooling off of tensions, as is evidenced by Bapir's presence at Komala's headquarters in Sulaymaniyah.
Although Bapir says he wants to avoid civil war, it is also clear that he is not about to renounce militancy simply because of American attack.
When this reporter asks him about the whereabouts of a Komala fighter he has interviewed, a young man named Khalid Jalal, Bapir pauses to remember.
He seems to have no memory of the young fighter. Then he stands up and smiles. "If that Khalid is gone," he says, "we have so many Khalids."