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U.S. Missiles Hit Islamist Strongholds in Northern Iraq

As many as 40 American cruise missiles slammed into two mountain villages held by an Islamic fundamentalist group in northern Iraq late Friday and early Saturday, according to local Kurdish officials. U.S. officials had no comment.

Later in the day, an explosion at a roadside checkpoint nearby killed at least one person, but details were sketchy about what caused the explosion or how many people were involved.

"The indication is that at 100 people were killed or injured during the raids," said Mustafa Sayyid Qadir, a military commander with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, according to Reuters.

The PUK identified the bombed villages as Biyara and Tawela, strongholds of Ansar al-Islam, a small Kurdish Islamic fundamentalist group that the mainstream Kurdish groups and the U.S. government say has ties to Al Qaeda.

Pentagon officials said Friday night they had no information about a strike on Ansar.

Agence France Presse reported that PUK officials said missiles had also hit the base of a more moderate Islamic party in the town of Khormal, killing between 50 and 100 people.

The checkpoint blast was said to take place as a taxi exploded alongside a vehicle returning from the village of Khurmal, but that could not be confirmed. An unidentified body was taken to the city of Sulaymaniah.

Hundreds of people streamed out of Khurmal in the wake of the coalition airstrikes.

"I am afraid of another barrage of missiles coming at us," said Mohammed Rahman, 17, as he walked with his cousins, carrying a bag with clothing in it.

"We're living an abnormal life, we're living in endless fear and war," said Rangi Said, 18 who carried a basket with food.

PUK spokesman Qubad Talabani told Fox News that Abu Musab Zarqawi, an Iraqi Islamic fundamentalist, stayed at Ansar training camps in the region after leaving Afghanistan.

Zarqawi has been claimed by both Secretary of State Colin Powell and President Bush as the "missing link" between Al Qaeda and Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, a connection few others have made.

The PUK says Ansar, which has about 600-700 fighters, many of whom may be foreigners, could be an obstacle in any U.S.-led offensive in northern Iraq. Ansar has been holding its own in an ongoing war of attrition against the much larger PUK for several months.

An anonymous PUK official said a new ground assault against Ansar was being prepared and could within days.

PUK fighters and heavily armed U.S. special forces poured into the area around Halabja, which neighbors the Ansar stronghold. Ansar controls 18 villages in the mountainous region along the Iranian border, which the PUK said is unassailable without air support.

Several weeks ago, PUK officials spotted carloads of alleged Ansar militants near sites said to be visited by the U.S. clandestine operatives active in the autonomous Kurdish region.

The strikes against the bases came as the U.S. prepared to open a northern front in Iraq to take control of the oil-rich cities of Kirkuk and Mosul. U.S. and British troops entered southern Iraq from Kuwait on Thursday and have been pounding Baghdad with airstrikes in the campaign to oust Saddam.

Coalition officials fear that Turkey will send its own troops into northern Iraq, provoking a war with the PUK and the other major Kurdish group, the Democratic Party of Kurdistan, which together have created a de facto Kurdish state in the northern Iraq no-fly zone.

The town of Khormal has been identified by Secretary of State Colin Powell as a site where Ansar al-Islam was believed to be producing ricin, a deadly chemical agent that was also found in raids on Islamic fundamentalists in Britain several months ago and in a train station in Paris earlier this week.

AFP reported PUK officials as saying Khormal was actually the base of Komala Islami Kurdistan, a mainstream Islamic group believed to have no ties to Al Qaeda or Ansar al-Islam.

Some experts doubt even Ansar's ties to Al Qaeda. The International Crisis Group, a Belgium-based think tank, said in a Feb. 7 report that Ansar was merely a local group with questionable ties to international terrorism.

"Having lost a number of its fighters in clashes with Ansar al-Islam, it is not surprising that the PUK has sought to emphasize the group's putative terrorist connections," the report said.

But, the report adds, "There is no hard evidence to suggest that Ansar al-Islam is more than a minor irritant in local Kurdish politics."

Fox News' Rita Cosby, Paul Wagenseil and The Associated Press contributed to this report.