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Sunday, 9 February, 2003, 19:37 GMT
Gunmen kill Iraqi Kurdish leader
Funeral of Shawkat Haji Mushir
Ansar al-Islam is accused of assassinating Mushir

Kurdish military officials in northern Iraq say one of their senior commanders has been killed by a militant Islamic group suspected of links to the al-Qaeda network.

A commander for the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), Sherkh Jafar said gunmen posing as defectors from the militant Islamic group, Ansar al-Islam, killed Shawkat Haji Mushir, along with five other people in an ambush on Saturday.

The Ansar control a small pocket of territory near the Iranian border inside the area of northern Iraq held by the Kurds.

The United States also accuses the group of co-operating with the Iraqi Government - charges the group has denied.

Shawkat Haji Mushir
Mushir's death has caused anger among Kurds
There were emotional scenes at the funeral of Shawkat Haji Mushir - a ceremonial send-off befitting his status as a member of the Kurdish parliament as well as a veteran Pashmurgher guerrilla fighter.

He, two of his men and three civilians, including one child, were killed when they were caught in a hail of bullets and grenades.

PUK officials say it was a carefully-planned ambush, mounted by the Ansar al-Islam, the radical Islamic faction with which the PUK has been violently at odds over the past two years.

A group of Ansar members had signalled an interest in defecting to the PUK and Mr Mushir had been put in charge of the negotiations.

'Risky move'

By this account it was a set-up and an extraordinary provocation at a time when the Ansar are under close scrutiny and being dubbed terrorists both by the PUK and the US.

The group has already been blamed for an assassination attempt on the PUK's prime minister last year, as well as for killing dozens of the PUK's fighters on the ground.

In the wake of Mr Mushir's death, a senior PUK official said it showed, once again, that the Ansar is a terrorist group which has to be eliminated.

Mohammad Toufiq Galali being treated by doctors
Other officials were injured in the attack
The PUK is deeply concerned that if the expected American and British war against the Baghdad government breaks out the Ansar may seize the opportunity to wreak havoc behind Kurdish lines.

The PUK is consulting with the other main Kurdish faction, the KDP, over possible joint action against a group which has caused problems for them both.

Although the Ansar are reckoned to number less than 1000 men, eliminating the group is not an easy task.

They are entrenched in rugged hills and mountains.

Some adjacent territory is controlled by other relatively sympathetic Islamic factions and they have the Iranian border to their rear.

See also:

09 Feb 03 | Middle East
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02 Oct 01 | Middle East
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