Michael Ware


TIME: Battling Terrorists in the Hills


The battle rages, fierce and bloody, perhaps the heaviest fighting northern Iraq has seen so far in this war. U.S. special forces are here, along with their Kurdish allies, facing down Ansar al-Islam, the diehard terrorist group based in Kurdish-controlled Iraq that the Americans believe is linked to al-Qaeda. "There are three or four isolated pockets of Ansar on very high ground. We're closing in on them from everywhere we can," says an American commando named Mark, who declines to give his rank or surname. The fire coming down from the craggy peak is torrid. Machineguns rattle from above. Ansar snipers pin down troops, their rounds pinging off rocks and buzzing past heads. In return, Kurdish artillery fires in from the flat plains about 2 miles below. Thick whistles sound uncomfortably overhead as a shell passes the Americans' position. It thwacks into the mountainside. "If we can get the blocking force in place, we can smoke them," shouts a U.S. soldier.

Ansar's best assets are their snipers. The day before, a single shooter halted an entire advance of Kurdish soldiers, known as peshmerga ("those who face death"), belonging to the pro-American Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, one of the main Kurdish political parties. The American commandoes have taken to calling the P.U.K. "the Puck" and the Peshmerga "the Pesh." "We were doing well until that sniper," a Special Forces soldier tells his buddy. "I wanted to drop some mortar on top of him but the pesh were too close." On this day's battle, three American snipers lay behind a rock, patiently waiting to sight their Ansar counterparts far above in the Shram Mountain. "There's a sniper playing with us," says a soldier. The American snipers' high-powered rifles crack intermittently. After the incoming rounds seem to cease, they pick themselves up. "I think between us we smoked three guys, sir," one says. "Oh, at least," adds another.

Through four hours of battle, I saw U.S. forces drill the three Ansar positions with mortars, heavy machinegun and anti-aircraft artillery, 40mm grenades and 500 pound bombs dropped from planes overhead. Still, the fire was returned by an enemy clearly visible through binoculars. At one point, three Ansar fighters simply stood on a mountain ledge, not flinching at the torrent of fire poured at them. At one stage one defender screamed "God is Great," even as grenades and heavy rounds peppered the cave he had ducked into.

In spite of the bravado, Ansar has found itself on this day on the defensive on the snowy mountains on Iraq's border with Iran, driven from its lowland frontline by a week of pummeling by Tomahawk and Cruise missiles. For a year, Ansar had fought PUK forces in trenches and bunkers on the plains below Shram mountain. Indeed, until Friday, the lowland village of Biarra was Ansar's base. But on at 2 p.m. that day, a mosque used as a terrorist headquarters, replete with a gunpit on top, was flattened by U.S. bombing. The Puck captured it an hour later. Locals guess that Ansar has 800 footsoldiers. "That's an underestimate," says Mark, "the numbers we've seen reinforcing their positions indicates they had a much larger pool than that to draw on. It's taken everyone by surprise." He sees the influence of Osama bin Laden. "The tactics are so clearly al-Qaeda trained," says Mark, pointing to Ansar's way with propaganda and terrorist strikes behind the lines, even its manner of mutilating prisoners. "I recognize it from the Chechnya-Georgia border, the border area between Tajikistan and Afghanistan, and on the Macedonian border. It screams al-Qaeda training," he says.

Within 24 hours of the U.S. attack, Ansar appeared to have been overwhelmed, fleeing to a last line of defense 4,000 ft. high among the peaks. The area, near the town of Halabja, has always been a redoubt: it is full of deep caves and secretive routes for escape and supply (nicknamed "rat-lines") across the rugged frontier with Iran. "They're ex-filling across the Iranian border," says one Special Forces soldier, using commando lingo for "escaping." For despite the acumen of Ansar's snipers, the peshmerga offensive had succeeded and hundreds of Kurdish troops—along with about 100 American commandoes—advanced into the terrorist stronghold. "My perception is that Ansar's delaying action was not as effective as they thought it would be," says Mark. "They didn't account for our air attack hitting them in front and behind. This allowed the Puck to push right through."

The peshmerga are as tough as Ansar is ruthless. "These guys literally walk up the mountain, get wounded and walk back down," says a U.S. medic. "They're tough sons of bitches." On Friday, as the medic worked at a casualty collection point, he says one wounded Kurdish soldier with a head wound simply straggled in, walked up and just "died on me."

The assault clearly took a toll on Ansar's militants. Politburo member Mahmood Sangarwi of the P.U.K. says 60 dead were left behind after Friday's battles. In the rocky terrain of Saturday's exchange I saw eight more slain Ansar fighters. Some had died in their bunkers; others were cut down as they fled over open ground or among relatively exposed rocky outcrops. Their corpses remained where they had fallen throughout the assault.

In the end, however, the battle for Halabja seemed inconclusive. President Bush last week referred to the destruction of Ansar's base as one of the war's important early achievements. But it may be a limited achievement. In Halabjah, U.S. Commando Mark says, "A lot of the senior cadre fled a long time ago leaving a fanatical hardcore to stay for the last stand. They had little intention of surviving." The Americans blasting away at the holdouts recognize this and lament past opportunities lost. "This is my second time in northern Iraq," says a Special Forces soldier. "I should be in Tampa with my wife enjoying spring break. Instead I'm here, and I wouldn't be if we'd done this right the first time."