In tense northern Iraq, where Islamic guerrillas are targeting U.S. intelligence teams for kidnapping, Kurdish security forces killed five Muslim men Tuesday in a possible case of mistaken identity at a checkpoint near an airstrip being prepared for American troops.
The shooting, which left a respected Muslim leader dead, occurred as Kurdish counter-terrorism units were shadowing militants in the group known as Ansar al-Islam. The radical Islamists, according to senior Kurdish officials, are running surveillance on heavily guarded U.S. intelligence teams working in the region as preparations continued for a possible American invasion of Iraq.
The killings also highlighted the mistrust between Islamists and the secular Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK, the Kurdish group that governs the eastern section of northern Iraq. The relationship between the two has been strained for years, but Ansar's guerrilla war and a recent suicide bombing it carried out have made the PUK more vigilant in hunting suspicious Islamic forces.
Gunfire broke out about 2:30 p.m. when a sport utility vehicle was stopped at a well-guarded checkpoint outside this village. The vehicle was carrying Abdullah Qasri, a leader in Komaly Islami, a militant Muslim political group that over the last year has improved its ties with the PUK. The government pays Komaly about $200,000 a month to keep the group from drifting closer to the radicalism espoused by Ansar.
Qasri, according to Komaly officials, had left a meeting and was traveling home with his driver and three bodyguards. On the same road, a PUK counter-terrorism unit was searching for Ansar guerrillas in a similar vehicle. A senior PUK official said several teams of guerrillas have been spying on the home of PUK leader Jalal Talabani and on an airstrip often visited by U.S. intelligence operatives that's about four miles from the checkpoint..
Exactly what happened at the checkpoint is unclear. Qasri's vehicle was sprayed with bullets, but there were conflicting reports of who fired first. One PUK customs guard was shot in the leg in the incident, and three other people were injured, including a 9-year-old girl and a counter-terrorism officer.
PUK officials said the atmosphere along the road had been tense for days. Security guards were jittery. Qasri's vehicle and the men in it -- all of whom were armed and wore beards -- matched the description of the Ansar cell that security guards had been told to stop.
The shooting is under investigation, according to the PUK, which quickly delivered a condolence letter to Komaly.
"A regrettable incident has occurred," PUK leader Barham Salih said. "One is sorry for the loss of human life. We are investigating. If there are people who have overreacted and did not adhere to the rules of engagement, there will be repercussions for those involved."
The bodies of the five men were taken to the Jihad mosque in Sulaymaniyah. They were wrapped in bloody blankets and laid on the floor as Komaly men with Kalashnikovs slung over their shoulders wept.
Some of the men in the mosque said the killings were an attempt by PUK hard-liners to link Komaly to Ansar so that both groups would be attacked by the U.S. during an invasion.
"I knew these men," said Azad Noori, holding a rifle in one hand and prayer beads in another. "Abdullah Qasri was a unique and religious person," Noori said. "The PUK is worried about suicide bombings from our brothers in Ansar. They watch everything. But I think someone in the PUK is trying to create problems between Komaly and the PUK. There is a hand in this."