US blitz on Kurdish Islamist groups, journalist killed in reprisal

2 hours, 41 minutes ago [March 22, 2003]

HALABJA, Iraq (AFP) - The United States widened its war in Iraq with a missile blitz of two Islamist groups in Iraqi Kurdistan killing at least 50 people but sending tensions in the area rising and raising questions over the validity of their targets.

Mustafa Sayed Khader, a top commander with the pro-US Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), said the pre-dawn attack on Ansar al-Islam (Supporters of Islam), which Washington has linked to the al-Qaeda terror network, involved a two-hour bombardment by some 50 cruise missiles.

And in an apparent retaliation, an Australian journalist was killed in a suicide car bomb attack while visiting the area hit near the town of Halabja in the southeast of the autonomous zone.

"Ansar positions were bombarded by around 40-50 cruise missiles. The missiles hit Ansar centres. There are many dead and injured, although we don't know how many for sure," Khader told reporters in PUK-held Halabja.

The US and PUK have alleged that Ansar al-Islam has links to both Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network and Baghdad. The faction controls a tiny pocket of territory between Halabja and the Iranian border, an area around 80 kilometres (50 miles) southeast of the PUK's administrative centre of Sulaymaniya.

But in a surprise move, missiles also hit the base of a mainstream Islamic party, Komala Islami Kurdistan (Islamic Society of Kurdistan), in the small town of Khormal, killing at least 50 people.

Komala control an area between PUK and Ansar territory, and the PUK justified the attack on the group by arguing that it had refused to allow PUK fighters to use its positions to attack Ansar.

"We gave them a last chance last night, but they refused," said Sayed Khader. He also warned neighbouring Iran, accusing Tehran of supporting Ansar and providing its fighters with sanctuary.

An official from a local moderate Islamic group, the Islamic Movement of Iraqi Kurdistan (IMIK), said he saw at least 50 bodies from a missile strike on another Komala office and added that the injured had been taken over the border to Iran for treatment.

"Near Khormal there is another Komala office that was destroyed. There were 45 people inside and all of them were killed," said the IMIK's Kamal Haji Ali, adding that there were unconfirmed reports that the group's leader Ali Bapir had also died.

Another IMIK official later put the toll at more than 50, while scores of residents fleeing the town in terror said up to 100 died in the strikes, which scored accurate hits on Komala offices where faction officials were meeting.

Residents were pouring out of Khormal throughout the day, and an Australian television journalist filming near the entrance to Khormal was killed when a taxi packed with explosives drove out of the town and blew up, sending a plume of black smoke into the sky.

Another Australian journalist was injured, and visiting journalists were quickly ordered out of the area, earlier declared secured by proud PUK fighters.

Three PUK Kurdish peshmerga fighters were also killed, along with the driver of the taxi, who PUK television said was a member of Al-Ansar, and a civilian bystander, witnesses and colleagues of the dead journalist said.

PUK officials also said eight people were injured.

It was unclear why Komala was targetted, as the group has representative offices across the Kurdish zone and has attempted to keep out of the PUK-Ansar dispute.

The Khormal site was identified last month by US Secretary of State Colin Powell as an Ansar chemical weapons plant, even though Ansar do not control the town.

Ansar quickly invited journalists to visit the site shown in Powell's satellite photo: the compound appeared to be a long-abandoned media center.

"This is (PUK leader) Jalal Talabani using the war for his own ends. The entire Islamic movement in Kurdistan will get revenge for this atrocity," an IMIK official here fumed.

On May 4 a deputy leader of Komala along with three of his bodyguards and his driver were shot dead by PUK militia. PUK officials said they were apparently mistaken for members of Ansar.

Ansar themselves only number some 800 fighters, allegedly including some low-ranking al-Qaeda fugitives from Afghanistan, leaving even some PUK officials wondering why they were worth a multi-million dollar blitz.

Details on casualties from the strikes on Ansar -- blamed for a series of suicide bombings and assassinations against the secular PUK, a key US ally in the battle against Saddam Hussein -- were not immediately available.

Clashes could be heard between Komala and PUK forces on Saturday afternoon.

Despite the blitz, Ansar appeared to be holding its ground, but there was a massive PUK build-up in the area. Sayed Khader said more airstrikes on the Islamists were expected, which he vowed would be followed up by a ground offensive.

Iran meanwhile denied taking in wounded Ansar members, with an official in Iranian Kurdistan quoted by the IRNA news agency condemning "baseless rumours" aimed at "dragging the Islamic republic into the conflict."

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