New find in 'smoking gun' search

US Special Forces working with Kurdish fighters say they have destroyed a northern Iraqi base here that the US had fingered as an Al Qaeda hideout where militants were experimenting with chemical and biological warfare.

US military officers, who teamed up with officers from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, say they found evidence at the main base of Ansar al-Islam - a fundamentalist Muslim militia believed to have joined forces with Al Qaeda fugitives from Afghanistan - of efforts to develop nonconventional weapons.

The Bush administration has charged that Saddam Hussein was or would soon be passing material for weapons of mass destruction on to Muslim fundamentalist organizations including Al Qaeda. Any concrete proof to support that claim could bolster Washington's position in a world that has been largely resistant or outright opposed to the US-led invasion of Iraq.

But the officials declined to say exactly what they had found or whether there was any evidence to link the militants camped out here to the Iraqi dictator.

"We have found various documents, equipment, and evidence that would indicate a presence of chemical or biological weapons. It has been flown back to the United States," a Special Forces company commander said Tuesday at a joint press press conference in Halabja, a Kurdish city in northern Iraq. "At this point, [exploration] of the site is ongoing."

In a war that has often seemed to be marked by more bad surprises than good, Tuesday was a moment for back-slapping. Kurdish and US forces lauded each other's cooperation in decimating a Taliban-like camp whose members were responsible for a recent suicide attack on a nearby checkpoint that killed an Australian journalist.

But the battle against Al Qaeda and Ansar - whose name means "supporters of Islam" - seemed far from over. Some 70 of the roughly 750 fighters here were killed. The rest escaped into the mountains, some crossing the border with Iran, the officers say.

Local Kurdish officials had already begun to call this village the "Little Tora Bora," a reference to the place in southern Afghanistan where Al Qaeda fighters hid from coalition forces during war there 16 months ago. Similarly, some of the fighters allegedly hid material for weapons of mass destruction in caves in this rocky, mountainous region, which Special Forces were continuing to scour Tuesday for evidence.

"I fought them because they wanted to destroy our freedom," says Burosik Jalal, a Kurdish battalion officer whose men were involved in the attack on Ansar. "They escaped to the mountains, but if someone supports them, such as other Islamic countries, maybe they will just come back."

As of Tuesday, the dust had not fully settled from a campaign that reached its peak over the weekend. A body lay face up near the road up the hillside village. Kurdish fighters say it was an Arab Al Qaeda member who took up position here after being driven out of Afghanistan.

Mortars and doshkas - old-fashioned Russian mounted machine guns - could be heard rumbling from the other side of the mountain, where Kurdish fighters say there are still "cleaning up the area." The Ansar camp itself could have been hit by a tornado. Buildings were reduced to rubble, while Islamist newspapers and magazines in Kurdish and Arabic lay scattered near a crater from US aerial bombardment. A ransacked building included a room full of mortars, and nearby some gloves and surgical masks, had Allahu Akbar, or "God is great" written on the door. In one ditch lay a large pile of empty canisters marked as baby formula. Their presence in the camp led to speculation here that they could have been used to smuggle chemical weapons materials.

The US and its Kurdish allies came at the camp from five different directions and worked in color-coded teams of red, green, and yellow - the Kurdish national colors.

Tuesday, officers referred to the pesh merga, Kurdish for "those who face death," as the "Pesh," and both counted Ansar's routing as an important victory for future cooperation in the war.

A relative affluence that many in Kurdish autonomous areas have come to enjoy in recent years under the oil-for-food program has been kept far from villagers here, who could not be reached by charity organizations because of their militant guests. The Ansar fighters also mined the area around the village to protect themselves from any invasion, Kurdish officials say.

"Now the people of this area face great dangers," says Skeikh Jaffar Mustafa, the commander of Halabjah.

Although US Special Forces officers said that only about 1 percent of the forces involved were American - anywhere from 8,000 to 10,000 pesh merga forces were involved in the assault - Mr. Mustafa says the offensive would not have been possible without US aerial attacks.

"The American special forces were a great support to us," he says.

The operation was a Kurdish initiative in which the US had a joint interest, the Special Forces officers said. Together they inflicted damage that would be a major setback for Ansar.

"There always a threat from a terrorist organization, but we've pretty much eliminated their base of operations here. So it will be very difficult for them to plan for future missions," said a Special Forces company commander who spoke to reporters in Halabjah.

"In a period of a day and a half, a terrorist organization which had a grip on this region for the last several years was routed out and neutralized."

Maj. Tim Nye, a spokesman for the Special Forces, says he thinks that the number of Ansar and Al Qaeda fighters who simply escaped away from the US and Kurdish attack was limited.

"Did a couple of guys get up over those mountains? I would say so," Major Nye says. "Did a lot of them get up over those mountains? I wouldn't think so."

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