More Killings in Kurdistan

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Five members of the Kurdish Islamic group Komal were shot dead at the Tasluga check point

The Kurdish region in northern Iraq, a pivotal staging point for any U.S. invasion, is an unsettling place at the best of times. Five bodies left sprawled on the road by a checkpoint on March 4 has made it even more so. Among the dead was Abullah Qasre, a leading figure in a local militant Islamic group known as Komal, one of the plethora of sectarian factions that riddle Kurdish politics. Komal, however, has come to be particularly important in recent months in light of the bloody war raging between ruling parties of Iraqi Kurdistan and Islamist groups linked with al-Qaeda, such as Ansar al-Islam. The local government had entered into a covert dialogue with Komal, hoping to draw it out of the Islamist nexus. The bloody checkpoint scene, captured by a Time photographer who arrived during the gun battle, has now thrown that dialogue into disarray. Komal supporters immediately blamed local government forces for the ambush.

On muddy battlefields near the town of Halabja on the Iran-Iraq border, the Kurdish militants of Komal guard the northern flank of the war's principal aggressors, Ansar al Islam. Western and local intelligence services have suggested variously that Ansar is backed by al-Qaeda, Tehran and Baghdad. Whatever the identity of its sponsors, Ansar has proved to be a major headache for the local authorities — the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, which runs the eastern section of the Kurdish region protected by the Anglo-American "no-fly" zone. For the past year, Ansar fighters have periodically attacked and overrun PUK positions, slaughtering everyone they find and videotaping the carnage for distribution as propaganda — the tapes have depicted prisoners being decapitated or burned alive.

On February 26, Ansar sent a suicide bomber behind PUK lines, killing two soldiers and a taxi driver outside of Halabja. The PUK's dialogue with Komal was designed to isolate and weaken Ansar from a potential ally.

For some time PUK intelligence and government figures have been in communication with Komal's leadership. The day before the suicide bombing, Ansar's pirate radio station, transmitting only a few miles beyond the snowy mountains that host their bunkers, aired a vehement denunciation of the Kurdish group's contact with the government. On the PUK's frontline, troops gathered around radios and listened to the diatribe accusing Komal of being infidels. The soldiers dismissed it as a ploy — a few hours later Ansar vehicles and gunmen had moved into Komal's area of control to improve their position for the nightly attack.

The PUK's director general for security, a man who goes by the name of Dr. Khasraw, hints there may have been more substance to the split between the Islamic groups. Indeed he readily makes concessions for the local militants, suggesting somewhat sympathetically that Komal's logistic support for Ansar's attempted assassination on the Kurdish prime minister earlier this year may have been given without the leadership's knowledge. "They cannot account for individuals," he says. He confirmed government discussions had been underway with Komal, but did not give details.

American advisers have recently been seen visiting PUK command posts on the Ansar frontline. Speculation abounds that U.S. bombers will soften the terrorists' bunkers in the lead-up to a Kurdish assault. Anything Komal could have offered in whittling away Ansar's support would have been helpful to the cause. That is now lost, with mourner's at Qasre's funeral charging the PUK with his assassination, rejecting claims that government soldiers had overreacted in nervous anticipation of another suicide bomber. That suggests they've been pushed back into the arms of Ansar, who may be the biggest beneficiaries of the latest shootout.