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Wednesday, 12 February, 2003, 17:13 GMT
Journalists visit 'chemical weapons site'
Satellite photo of Khurmal
Powell alleged chemical weapons were made at Khurmal

Journalists have visited the alleged chemical weapons site in Kurdish-held northern Iraq that US Secretary of State Colin Powell says is run by an Islamic group linked to al-Qaeda.

But they saw no obvious evidence of chemical weapons production.

The site, used as a base by the Ansar al-Islam, is adjacent to the small hamlet of Sargatt in the hills which run along the Iranian border north of the Kurdish town of Halabja.

Soldier looking at Ansar al-Islam positions in northern Iraq
Ansar al-Islam operate near Iraq's border with Iran

When we visited it was crawling with Ansar gunmen but nothing more sinister than small arms was on display.

The Ansar commanders said the site, which consists of scattered buildings in a fenced-off compound on a rugged hillside, had been used primarily as a radio and television centre, until Mr Powell's speech this week.

We were shown radio and TV studios which had obviously been there for some time.

Open in new window : Chemical claims
Photos from what the US called an 'Iraqi poison site'
But they did not look as though they had been used recently.

Other buildings in the compound had apparently been used as residential premises and hastily abandoned because of fears of an imminent American air or missile strike.

At the back of a row of buildings there was one drum which had originally contained plastic-related chemicals but it was empty.

The Ansar said it had been used to store fuel.

Strike fear

If the site had been used for producing or experimenting in chemical or biological weapons, there was no obvious sign that that is still the case.

By taking the unprecedented step of allowing Western journalists to inspect the base, the Ansar were clearly hoping to forestall an American strike.

We were told that fear of such an attack had led villagers in the immediate area to leave.

In other nearby villages outside the Ansar pocket, elders also expressed fears that they might be the victims of American attacks gone wrong, like those that happened in Afghanistan.

Anxious villagers

The people of the town of Khurmal, about five kilometres away to the west are particularly anxious since Mr Powell gave their town's name to the alleged chemical weapons site.

The accusations have been levelled both by Mr Powell and by one of the big Iraqi Kurdish factions, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the PUK, which controls much of the area around the pocket held by the Ansar.

The PUK and the Ansar have been engaged in violent clashes for nearly two years.

Senior officials of the PUK have said that with a western operation against the Iraqi regime apparently imminent, it cannot afford to leave what it calls "a hostile terrorist group" operating behind its back.

Some Iraqi opposition leaders are trying to mediate a peaceful solution that would involve the Ansar either dissolving themselves or joining up with other, nearby Islamic groups, which are regarded as legitimate.

There is little sign that that bid is making progress.

The Ansar commanders themselves also denied Mr Powell's accusations that they have links with al-Qaeda or the Baghdad government.

See also:

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