Islamic Group in Kurdish Northern Iraq to Relocate After U.S. Strike

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An Islamic group in Kurdish-ruled northern Iraq said Tuesday it is relocating to avoid being hit again by U.S. airstrikes aimed at a different Islamic organization, one allegedly linked to Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein's regime.

The Kurdistan Islamic Group says it suffered 43 deaths, 30 injuries and lost six buildings in last weekend's strikes aimed at Ansar al-Islam, an Islamic group with alleged Al Qaeda and Baghdad ties.

"We're moving so we don't give the Americans an excuse to attack us again," Anwar Mohammad, a high-level official of the Kurdistan Islamic Group, said Tuesday.

"Someone gave the wrong information to the Americans, giving them the wrong impression that we are terrorists. We are not terrorists," Mohammad said. "We have agreements with the government. And we have no problems with Americans."

Mohammad said a convoy of 10,000 or more Kurdistan Islamic Group members would come down from the mountains and relocate temporarily to another base near the Iranian border in the next three days.

Under an agreement signed by Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani and witnessed by Iranian officials, the Kurdistan Islamic Group may return to its original base in three months.

The Bush administration has accused Ansar al-Islam of maintaining ties to Saddam Hussein's regime. Early Saturday, U.S. forces launched 40 to 50 missiles at Ansar positions near the Iranian border in the northeastern corner of Iraq.

Missiles also struck the Islamic Group, which controls territory next to Ansar. Airstrikes continued over the weekend and into Tuesday, when at least eight loud explosions could be heard near Ansar positions.

A Kurdish security official in Irbil who spoke on condition of anonymity said Wednesday he has received reports that as many as a dozen Kurdish opponents of Saddam were fatally shot Tuesday by Iraqi forces. He had not been able to confirm the reports.

In the Mosul area of northern Iraq, dense clouds mixed with blowing desert sands from the southern storms presented complications for allied forces, resulting in a quiet night.

The Kurdish autonomous region, established after the 1991 Gulf War, is protected by U.S.-British air patrols. It is governed by The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan in the east, and the Kurdistan Democratic Party in the west.

A high-level Kurdish official called the attacks on the Islamic Group a mistake, and likened them to friendly fire.

"It happens sometimes that an American helicopter is hit by an American missile," said Kosrat Rasool Ali, considered the No. 3 official in the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. "We are not at war with the Islamic Group. We treat them as friends."

Even so, Barham Salih, prime minister of the southeastern half of the Kurdish enclave, said the Islamic Group had been repeatedly warned to separate itself "politically, militarily and geographically" from Ansar, which he said maintained friendly ties to the Islamic Group.

"You cannot claim neutrality when terrorists use your cover to terrorize people," he said. "You cannot have it both ways."

The area near Ansar's stronghold remains far from stable. Three alleged Ansar militants and Kurdish government militiaman died in a ferocious 30-minute firefight Monday night in the village of Anab, near Halabja, Kurdish officials said.

Six Kurdish militiamen, called Peshmergas, were also injured. Islamic Group officials and a leader of another political group say no more than 12 Ansar militants were killed in U.S. airstrikes.