That assessment was buttressed a few days ago by the surprise visit of U.S. special forces to the area of the Gildadrozen battle.
According to a Kurdish official who was present, a team of U.S. personnel and armed Kurdish bodyguards, traveling in sport utility vehicles, visited the PUK command center in Halabja on January 7.
Halabja, the site of the notorious 1988 chemical attack by the Iraqi air force, has been under Kurdish control since 1991.
The town, which is only a few miles from Gildadrozen, lies in a rich farming valley near the Surren mountains in northern Iraq along the border with Iran.
The area, which has been a center of conservative Islamic thought since the mid-1980s, has been the scene of armed conflict between Islamic guerrillas and government forces for more than a year.
The Kurdish official, who spoke on the condition he not be identified, said the American visitors to Halabja were wearing loose-fitting "peshmerga clothing" like that worn by local PUK fighters and sporting "neatly trimmed beards." He said they were escorted into the PUK command center by Bavel Talabani, the son of the Kurdish leader.
Later in the day, the caravan of SUVs drove to Shinerwe Mountain, which overlooks Biarrah.
The Americans toured PUK bunkers, from which the positions of Ansar al-Islam can be seen with binoculars, according to the official.
The visit of American forces to the front lines lends credence to weeks of local rumors that the U.S. may be planning to attack Ansar al-Islam in advance of — and separate from — any offensive against the Baghdad regime of Saddam Hussein.
Prisoners Paint Picture
This week, ABCNEWS was allowed to interview eight prisoners at a security prison in the city of Sulaimaniah, the headquarters of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.
The prisoners included the would-be assassin of the PUK prime minister, an Iranian smuggler, a 15-year-old boy who had tried to throw a grenade into a crowd, an African Islamic man from the Comoros Islands and an Iraqi Arab who had trained in a Taliban camp in Afghanistan.
The interviews did not establish an operational link between al Qaeda and Kurdistan. But several prisoners painted a picture of a mini-Taliban society in northern Iraq, whose adherents shared a similar al Qaeda ideology.
In addition, two detainees spoke of visits by Kurdish militants to Taliban guest houses in Afghanistan and an influx to Kurdistan of so-called "Afghani Arabs," who have relocated in the Biarrah area.
The Iraqi Arab prisoner said he had spent several weeks at the "Faruk camp" in Afghanistan, the same camp where John Walker Lindh, the "American Taliban," admitted he had trained.
The prisoner, who was captured when he came to the PUK security office to apply for a travel permit, said there were a number of Kurds among the many nationalities fighting with the Taliban.
He said his instructors in the camp had recommended Kurdistan, among other destinations, to "missionaries" who wanted to spread their version of Islam. One trainer singled out Kurdistan, which was wracked by civil conflict in the 1990s," because it had many parties and conflicts," according to the prisoner.
One of those interviewed said he was a former Ansar al-Islam guerrilla. He admitted that he was cooperating with the government in the hope his sentenced would be reduced.