Kurdish Officials: Suspected Al Qaeda Terrorists Killed

Two suspected Al Qaeda militants were killed in a shootout as U.S.-led forces intensified bombing on parts of northern Iraq that are believed to be controlled by an Islamic terrorist group, Kurdish officials said Wednesday.

Khaled al-Shami and Abdul al-Basir, killed in a firefight this week with Kurdish forces near the city of Halabja, were members of an Afghan-based Al Qaeda cell, according to Khosrow Gul Mohammad, chief of security for the Kurdish government here.

Khosrow described al-Shami and al-Basir as Jordanians of Palestinian origin who trained in Afghanistan with Usama bin Laden's group and belonged to a cell called Jund al-Sham.

"After Afghanistan was attacked by the U.S.A., they decided to escape to a safe place," Khosrow said at a regularly scheduled briefing. "They chose to come to Kurdistan."

The Kurdish-run enclave in northern Iraq has been beyond the control of the Baghdad government since the establishment of a no-fly zone following the 1991 Gulf War. Islamic militants, including an Al Qaeda-linked group called Ansar al-Islam, control small sections of the autonomous area near the Iranian border.

As a possible prelude to a northern front in the war to oust Saddam Hussein's regime, U.S. forces have launched Tomahawk missiles against Ansar al-Islam's mountain positions.

Political efforts also are under way to remove the Islamists. The Kurds have negotiated with another Islamic group based near Ansar to relocate to another area and offered an amnesty to Kurdish members of Ansar, Kurdish officials said.

Khosrow confirmed witness accounts of bombing raids throughout the day Tuesday and Wednesday targeting Ansar-held villages such as Biyare, the group's stronghold, and Sargat, site of the alleged "poison factory" identified by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell in his February address to the United Nations.

A high-level Kurdish official has said planes landing almost nightly at the Bakrajo airstrip west of here have been carrying U.S. Special Forces operatives. Khosrow predicted a ground offensive to roust Ansar would begin within "days."

Despite gale-force wind and heavy rain, bombing also continued Wednesday in and around the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, 100 miles to the west. Several bombs hit the Iraqi-controlled ridge above the city, sending plumes of black smoke into the sky. Witnesses reported huge explosions.