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.

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