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U.S. officials: Al Qaeda in Kurd-controlled Iraq

From David Ensor
CNN Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A handful of "second-tier" al Qaeda members have taken refuge in northern Iraq, in an area controlled by the militant Kurdish group, Ansar al Islam, U.S. officials said Wednesday.

"I have no doubt there are some who have taken refuge in Iraq," a U.S. official said.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said Tuesday that al Qaeda members "have left Afghanistan. They have left other locations, and they've landed in a variety of countries, one of which is Iraq."

Word that Arab al Qaeda members may be hiding in Iraq could bolster Bush administration arguments for military action against Iraq, but U.S. intelligence officials stressed they have no evidence the Iraqi government has sheltered any al Qaeda fugitives.

The small area controlled by Ansar al Islam is in the mountainous north of the northern no-fly zone that has been patrolled by U.S. and allied warplanes since the end of the Gulf War. The government of President Saddam Hussein does not control the Kurdish north of Iraq, though Rumsfeld said Tuesday, "In a vicious, repressive dictatorship that exercises near-total control over its population, it's very hard to imagine that the government is not aware of what is taking place in the country."

One U.S. official said Wednesday, "It would be a stretch to say there is regime complicity" in the presence of al Qaeda fighters in a part of Iraq it does not control. However, he said "given the pervasive nature of the Iraqi security apparatus" it is "likely" Saddam is aware of the small al Qaeda presence in Iraq.

Asked Tuesday whether there was any evidence Baghdad was aware of al Qaeda members in Iraq, Rumsfeld said, "Well, at some moment it may make sense to discuss that publicly. It doesn't today."

Monday, U.S. officials confirmed President Bush had shelved a plan to attack a primitive testing facility run by members of Ansar al Islam in the extreme north of Iraq, where the biological toxin ricin had been tested on barnyard animals and possibly on one human.

Officials said that about a dozen members of the militant Kurdish group had trained in Afghanistan and had been in contact there with senior operatives of al Qaeda.




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