Signs of War in Northern Iraq

The grainy video opens in a cramped room lit by a single oil lamp. Armed combatants sit cross-legged on the floor, listening intently to battle instuctions from their bearded commander. The date of Dec. 4, 2002, is superimposed on the screen.

The leader, who is wearing glasses and a winter hat, is pointing to a sketch of a planned attack, which has been drawn on a chalk board.

At the center of the crude drawing is the target — a garrison of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), a heavily guarded fort known as Gildadrozen, which means "Liars Hill" in English.

The position, which was named for its deceptively large hilltop, is defended by PUK fighters, allies of the United States in any war against Iraq.

The men preparing to attack the garrison are members of Ansar al-Islam (Supporters of Islam), a little known group in northern Iraq whose suspected ties to Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda are now a focus of Pentagon planners.

Killer Inspirations

The guerrilla videotape documents last month's pre-dawn assault on Gildadrozen. The attack left at least 50 PUK fighters dead and wounded dozens more. The video contains grisly footage of PUK corpses with enormous head wounds.

The footage, which is edited to a music track with inspirational verses from the Koran, appears to confirm reports given by survivors who testified to prisoner execution and the mutilation of bodies.

Combined with extensive interviews recorded last week with guerrilla defectors and prisoners captured from Ansar al-Islam, the video gives some sense of this shadowy, largely unpublicized group.

Members of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, made a committee visit to northern Iraq last month a few days after the Gildadrozen incident. Leaders of the both Kurdish parties presented a written needs list to the senators, which included the request for "U.S. help to uproot the terrorist Ansar al-Islam organization."

Two senators told ABCNEWS the request would be conveyed to the Bush Administration.

The region of northern Iraq known as Iraqi Kurdistan has been autonomous from Baghdad since the 1991 Gulf War. While the PUK controls the eastern part of the autonomous zone, the western areas are controlled by its rival, the Kurdistan Democratic Party.

Al Qaeda in Kurdistan?

Last week, PUK leader Jalal Talabani indicated that the Bush Administration now believes that "very important" al Qaeda members are headquartered in the village of Biarrah in the Kurdish controlled area of northern Iraq.

According to Talabani, "The Americans are very much interested in ending this base of al Qaeda."

This week, a U.S. government official who has studied Ansar al-Islam, and who has interviewed prisoners held by the PUK, told ABCNEWS that he and members of "national security circles" have concluded that "foreign Al Qaeda are present in northern Iraq".

U.S. Special Forces Drop In

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, travelling 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 along the Iran border in the southeast portion of northern Iraq.

The area, which has been a center of conservative Islamic thought since the mid-1980's 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 SUV's 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 seperate 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 1990's," because it had many parties and conflicts", according to the prisoner.

Taliban-Style Life

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.

The informant described village life behind the fortified and mined positions of Ansar al-Islam.

Biarrah is one of about 10 hamlets in a small enclave of 60-80 square miles controlled by the guerrillas. The informant, who wore a ski mask to conceal his identity during several hours of interviews, detailed a Taliban-like existence behind the Ansar lines.

He said the Biarrah society was under the strict Islamic rule of "sharia", where music and videos were outlawed, women were forced to wear the veil and public beatings were given to anyone found in the possession of alcohol.

He testified to the presence of al Qaeda operatives, and he said he attended the funeral of a well known Arab commander who was killed in battle.

The hooded informant said that Islamic fighters were closely mixed with local families in the Birrah area. He speculated that a surprise aerial bombardment likely would result in civilian casualties.