Two opposing reviews of possible links, neither with any proof.
Both reports agree, basically, that Ansar al-Islam "were up to no good", and that a link with Arab Islamist volunteers, possibly Al-Qaeda linked, are at the very least probable.
What the estimations vary on is the likelihood of there being any link with Saddam's regime (Ansar having been grouped in the autonomous Kurdish area), and on the scope of danger the group posed in the first place.
(Remains, for me, the baffled European reader, the question why any commander would request anonymity for any such commonplace as "I can't go into details, but there's no doubt that these guys were up to no good" - or why any paper would print it. I mean, duh - so?)
In any case, it's an interesting case in media comparisons - striking how two media can come up with such contrasting assessments, when there is apparently hardly a single hard proof or fact available to base them on.
Do compare and comment as you see fit!
MSNBC - full story at http://www.msnbc.com/news/893489.asp?0cv=CB10
U.S. scours for Saddam-al-Qaida link
By Preston Mendenhall
U.S. special forces are scouring this remote frontier region for evidence to back up White House allegations that Saddam Hussein's regime is linked to the al-Qaida terrorist network. While sources familiar with the operation say there is not yet a "smoking gun" that establishes a clear link between the Iraqi leader and al-Qaida, American experts have uncovered evidence that al-Qaida militants operated openly here, possibly producing chemical weapons.
OVER THE LAST two days, U.S. military Chemical-Biological Survey teams, or CBSs, have visited a handful of training camps belonging to Ansar al-Islam, a Kurdish radical Islamic group Washington says has received support from both Saddam and al-Qaida. [..]
The Ansar al-Islam training camps here bear a striking resemblance to al-Qaida bases in Afghanistan, thriving in desolate areas beyond the control of local officials.
The Bush administration's allegations that Saddam has supported al-Qaida elements in northern Iraq underpin Washington's reasoning for trying to remove Saddam from power.
An American officer familiar with the search for evidence said detailed recipes for toxins and chemical agents had been discovered in the Ansar al-Islam camps. Also recovered were page-by-page translations of U.S. military tactical warfare training manuals.
"I can't go into details," said the officer, speaking on condition of anonymity. "But there's no doubt that these guys were up to no good." [..]
In his Feb. 5 report to the U.N. Security Council laying out the case for ousting Saddam, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said that Ansar al-Islam had established a "terrorist poison and explosives factory" in northern Iraq. Powell said Saddam had sent an agent to help with the group's militant activities. [..]
When the bombing ceased on Friday, American chemical and biological weapons experts descended on the area.
Local Kurdish civilians who lived around the camps say foreigners from Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Sudan lived and trained in the area. Kurdish and U.S. officials say Ansar al-Islam became a "safe haven" for al-Qaida fighters who fled Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban in November 2001. [..]
Proving a link between Saddam and Islamists in a region not controlled by the Iraqi leader will be difficult for the Bush administration. Iraq's Kurdish minority has controlled the north for a decade, though Saddam's intelligence agents regularly pass back and forth, according to Kurdish officials.
Saddam is a secularist leader who banished the fiery brand of Islam familiar to al-Qaida followers. Still, U.S. officials say the Saddam and the religious extremists have been drawn together by their common anti-American positions.
Sources familiar with the ongoing U.S. effort to tie al-Qaida to Saddam say they are confident the evidence gathered so far in northern Iraq will eventually confirm a relationship.
One source, who requested anonymity, said it was just a matter of "connecting the dots."
"There is plenty here that demonstrates al-Qaida's presence. And there is plenty pointing to a concerted effort to produce chemical weapons," he said.
The Independent - full story at http://news.independent.co.uk/world/middle_east/story.jsp?story=392445
Dozens killed as US special forces overrun 'terrorist' camps
By Patrick Cockburn in Sherawa, northern Iraq
US special forces working with Kurdish militia have over-run the base camps of Ansar al-Islam, a small Kurdish Islamic group which achieved sudden notoriety when the US administration claimed it was linked both to al-Qa'ida and Saddam Hussein.
About 100 US Special Forces and 6,000 Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) peshmerga started their attack last Friday against an Ansar force of 700, which for several years has occupied a narrow wedge of hills between the eastern Kurdish city of Halabja and the Iranian border. [..]
Ansar has been a thorn in the side of the PUK government, fiercely defending its handful of villages close to the border with Iran, but in Kurdish politics it was a small player.
It came to international attention when Colin Powell, the US Secretary of State, claimed before the UN Security Council that Ansar had connections simultaneously to al-Qa'ida and Baghdad. But it was always an unlikely alliance.
General Powell said an al-Qa'ida member called Abu Musab Zarqawi had established a "poison and explosive training factory" on Ansar territory. He also said the Iraqi government had "an agent in the most senior levels of Ansar".
The claim that Ansar was linked to al-Qa'ida was encouraged by the PUK, which wanted to get rid of a local irritant, and could point to some 100 Arabs within the group who had previously been in Afghanistan. But Mr Salih said Ansar had no link to Baghdad because the Iraqi Arabs with the group were clearly anti-Saddam Hussein.
In the few villages it held, Ansar had instituted an Islamic regime similar to that of the Taliban in Afghanistan where television, dancing, girls' schools and women appearing without a veil were prohibited. There was little firm evidence, however, that Ansar was connected to al Qa'ida.
The site alleged to have been the poison factory turned out to be controlled by another Islamic group.
Mullah Krekar, the leader of Ansar, in exile in Norway, denied any link with President Saddam, whom he frequently denounced. "As a Kurdish man I believe he is our enemy," he said. [..]
Ansar could not have survived without Iranian support, probably channelled through the Revolutionary Guards just across the Iranian border. [..]