April 1, 2003
BIYARE, Iraq -- A U.S.-led assault on a compound controlled by an extremist Islamic group turned up a list of names of suspected militants living in the United States and what may be the strongest evidence yet linking the group to al-Qaida, coalition commanders said Monday.
The cache of documents at the Ansar al-Islam compound, including computer discs and foreign passports belonging to Arab fighters from around the Middle East, could bolster the Bush administration's claims that the two groups are connected, although there was no indication any of the evidence tied Ansar to Saddam Hussein, as Washington has maintained.
There were indications, however, that the group has been getting help from inside neighboring Iran.
Kurdish and Turkish intelligence officials, some speaking on condition of anonymity, said many of Ansar's 700 members have slipped out of Iraq and into Iran, putting them out of reach of coalition forces.
According to a high-level Kurdish intelligence official, three Ansar leaders -- identified as Ayoub Afghani, Abdullah Shafeye and Abu Wahel -- were among those who had fled into Iran. The official said the three were seen being detained by Iranian authorities Sunday.
Using airstrikes and ground forces, Kurdish and U.S. troops have cooperated in the past week to dislodge and crush Ansar militants in 18 villages surrounding the Iraqi city of Halabja, about 160 miles northeast of Baghdad.
"We actually believe we destroyed a significant portion of the Ansar al-Islam force there," Maj. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, vice director of operations on the Pentagon's Joint Staff, said Monday. He said forces were investigating the finds.
Among a trove of evidence found inside Ansar compounds were passports and identity papers of Ansar activists indicating that up to 150 of them were foreigners, including Yemenis, Turks, Palestinians, Pakistanis, Algerians and Iranians.
Coalition forces also found a phone book containing numbers of alleged Islamic activists based in the United States and Europe, as well as the number of a Kuwaiti cleric and a letter from Yemen's minister of religion. The names and numbers were not released.
Seized computer discs contained evidence showing meetings of Ansar and al-Qaida activists, according to Mahdi Saeed Ali, a military commander.
It was unclear how strong Ansar remains.
Officials from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, one of two parties that share control of an autonomous Kurdish enclave in northern Iraq, say they killed 250 Ansar members during two days of intense fighting and aerial bombardments.
"There was ferocious fighting," Saeed said.