|Militants Attack Iraqi Kurds
erupted in Iraq's northern Kurdish enclave Wednesday, as inspectors continued
the hunt for weapons that could spark or prevent a far larger conflict.
About 20 fighters of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan were killed or injured Wednesday in an early morning battle with Islamic militants believed to be linked to al Qaeda near the city of Halabja, Kurdish military officials said.
Meanwhile, United Nations inspectors entered a desert-based former chemical weapons factory, while a second team searched a nuclear complex.
The inspectors at the chemical weapons site are making a return visit to check that Iraq hasn't resumed production there.
The factory used to be key to Iraq's production of some of the deadliest chemical weapons known, and may have been a factor in anthrax development. The nuclear site was where Israel destroyed a reactor in an airstrike during the 1980s.
In the fighting, militants from the Ansar al-Islam seized two hilltop positions of the Patriotic Union, said Sheik Jaffar Mustafa of the Kurdish militia.
The guerrillas from Ansar al-Islam fired heavy artillery as they charged the Kurdish positions, Mustafa said. Mustafa said he believed his force had suffered about 20 casualties, but was unsure how many were killed or wounded.
The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan rushed in reinforcements from its special forces as ambulances rushed wounded fighters to a hospital.
While some of the Ansar al-Islam forces are Kurds, Mustafa said they also include Arab Afghans believed to have ties to the al Qaeda terrorist movement of Osama bin Laden. Some fighters from the group have said they trained in al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan but denied having any current links to bin Laden's group.
The Patriotic Union is one of two Kurdish factions holding power in northern Iraq. In the early 1990s, its armed clashes with the other leading group, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, led the United States to fund peacekeepers to monitor them.
The ability of Kurdish resistance fighters to assist in any possible U.S. invasion has long been a point of debate.
A major part of the answer to a different question — whether that war will take place at all — is due over the weekend.
A senior Iraqi official said Tuesday that Baghdad would reaffirm in a crucial upcoming U.N. declaration that it has no weapons of mass destruction despite U.S. and British claims to the contrary.
Melissa Fleming, spokeswoman for the U.N. nuclear control agency in Vienna, Austria, said the Iraqis were expected to submit their report to the U.N. office in Baghdad on Saturday — one day before the deadline mandated by the Security Council.
The declaration — reporting on any weapons of mass destruction, along with chemical, biological and nuclear activities they say are peaceful — will help shape the inspectors' future work in Iraq, as they seek to verify Baghdad's claims.
Gen. Amin indicated the report, which may run to thousands of pages, would include "new elements," but "those new elements don't mean that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction. Iraq is free of weapons of mass destruction."
The U.S. administration is expected to dispute that. The claim elicited skepticism from President Bush Tuesday.
"The issue is not the inspectors. The issue is whether or not Mr. Saddam Hussein disarms like he said he would," Mr. Bush told a partisan crowd of 5,000 during a political trip in Shreveport, La.
"We're not interested in hide-and-seek inside Iraq. The only question is … will this man disarm? The choice is his. And if he does not disarm, the United States of America will lead a coalition to disarm him."
The president sought to underscore his skepticism about Saddam's intentions amid reports that the U.N. mission in Iraq is going well thus far.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and Chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix said Tuesday that Iraq's cooperation with weapons inspectors has been good so far. Annan praised the inspectors for using their authority to visit presidential palaces; they made their first such visit on Tuesday, a 90-minute tour of Saddam's opulent al-Sajoud palace.
The United States has threatened war against Iraq — with or without U.N. sanction — if in its view Baghdad is not stripped of weapons of mass destruction.
Other governments say only the U.N. Security Council can authorize such aggression in the absence of a situation of immediate self-defense.
Hundreds of staff officers of the U.S. Central Command were gathering in the Persian Gulf emirate of Qatar for a major "war game" beginning next week that could provide models for any eventual conflict with Iraq.
Tensions flared at the head of the gulf on Tuesday. An Iraqi vessel traded fire with two Kuwaiti coast guard speedboats near the two countries' maritime border. Kuwaiti officials reported no one was wounded.
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