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WAR WITH IRAQ

Cornered, Guerrillas Flee Their Mountain Hide-Outs

U.S. soldiers, Kurdish fighters pound Ansar's caves in northern Iraq. Defeating the group is seen as key to calming Islamic extremism.

March 30, 2003|Jeffrey Fleishman | Times Staff Writer

GULP, Iraq — In mountains echoing with the sound of gunfire and rockets, U.S. and Kurdish forces Saturday battered caves and ridges held by retreating Islamic militants whose leaders fled from northern Iraq to Iran after a second day of heavy bombardment.

Firing artillery and high-caliber machine guns, U.S. Special Forces troops and thousands of Kurdish fighters cornered guerrillas of Ansar al Islam in three mountain pockets.

The barrage rumbled throughout the day as computers and weapons caches were seized from Ansar positions and the bodies of militants were collected from a landscape marred by cruise missile craters and burned bunkers.

Six U.S. Humvees armed with .50-caliber machine guns drove past this village and wound toward Sargat, where Ansar guerrillas were pinned in caves along the snowline.

Machine-gun fire came in bursts, and Kurdish fighters launched Katyusha rockets high into the mountains.

The U.S.-led offensive followed Friday's opening of a ground war against Ansar, which is considered a terrorist organization by Washington. About 100 Special Forces troops are supporting more than 6,000 Kurdish fighters in a battle that, while at the margins of the war to depose Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, is viewed by the Bush administration as important to countering Islamic extremism.

Two Ansar leaders who fled to Iran -- Abu Wael and Ayub Afghan -- have links to terrorist leader Osama bin Laden, said a senior Kurdish official. Afghan is Ansar's bomb-maker and Wael, according to U.S. officials and Ansar prisoners, is an Iraqi intelligence officer who traveled to Al Qaeda terrorist camps in Afghanistan.

The leaders fled as the death toll in this battle mounted Saturday. Kurdish officials said that 176 of Ansar's 700 fighters had been killed by airstrikes and ground offensives and that the group had retreated from almost all of its territory in a small part of northeastern Iraq, including 12 villages.

Officials said 20 Kurdish fighters had been killed and 73 wounded. No American casualties were reported.

"The front is by and large secured," said Barham Salih, prime minister of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, which governs the eastern zone of the Kurdish enclave in northern Iraq. "Ansar has been delivered a very serious blow. Its main leadership has fled, many of its militants have been killed."

The PUK is negotiating with Iranian officials -- some of whom support Islamic extremism -- to extradite Wael, Afghan and other Ansar guerrillas to northern Iraq.

Intelligence reports and the battlefield capture over the weekend of a Palestinian Ansar guerrilla, Ahmed Mohammed Tawil, provided additional evidence that many Arabs belong to the group, including Tunisians and Moroccans.

A tall man with hard eyes, Tawil is the kind of fighter American forces are encountering in these mountains.

In an interview in a Sulaymaniyah prison, Tawil said he left his home in the Gaza Strip six months ago and traveled to Ansar's stronghold "to fight against Jews and Americans."

Sitting in handcuffs and with a bullet wound in his left leg, the 34-year-old Tawil said he learned about Ansar from the Internet.

"I was following all the Web sites on jihad. I chose Ansar because Chechnya was blocked. Afghanistan was blocked. And in Palestine we are allowed no weapons," Tawil said.

Earlier in the day, about 70 U.S. soldiers in Humvees and sport utility vehicles arrived at the mosque in the village of Gulp. Artillery fire slammed into the hills. As the convoy left the village and rounded a bend toward Ansar's base in Sargat, heavy machine-gun fire alternated with the crack of rockets. A Special Forces mortar crew waited below; battle lines were in flux.

A soldier refused to let two journalists pass.

"It's not secure," he said. "Leave now."

A Kurdish security official said Ansar took 20 prisoners when it retreated, ordering them to carry heavy loads into the mountains or be shot.

Throughout the weekend, Kurdish fighters rotated into the battle and, after their stint, were allowed to sleep in the fields.

"There are so many caves in these mountains," said Sirwan Jalal Salih, resting in the grass. "Ansar is in those caves high up in the snow. We have been ordered to fight until we get them out. American cruise missiles will get them at night."

Another Kurdish fighter, Shakhawan Abdulla, leaned against the tire of a pick-up truck, sweat staining his fatigues.

"I'm very tired," he said, his eyes bloodshot. "Last night I fought in the mountains. I saw an Ansar corpse.... Six Kurdish fighters were killed. I knew two of them. One was a captain. His name was Yasir. He was killed by a grenade. The fighting between the Kurds and Ansar was at a very close distance."

Across a stream and up a slight hill, a series of caves runs along a dirt path.

On Friday, Kurdish fighters backed by B-52 bombers and F-14 fighter jets attacked this valley as Ansar guerrillas fled the caves.

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