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Al-Qaeda Members Fled To Kurdish Area Of Iraq, State Department Says

By Doug Struck

Suspected members of al-Qaeda who fled to Iraq are likely in an area of the country controlled by Kurdish groups, not President Saddam Hussein, a top State Department official said here Wednesday.

Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage said he does not believe the al-Qaeda members are harbored by the Kurdish parties, whom Washington is courting as allies against Saddam, and who operate in northern Iraq under the protection of U.S. fighter planes.

But Armitage’s information lends support to the Iraqi leadership’s denial that they are harboring al-Qaeda fugitives. And it appeared to undercut one argument used by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to justify a possible attack on Iraq’s ruler. Rumsfeld said last week that the al-Qaeda members must be in Iraq with the assent of the Baghdad government.

“We do know there are some al-Qaeda in Iraq,” Armitage said. “They may very well be in some of the areas not controlled by the government of Iraq.”

U.S. intelligence officials last week pointed to the presence of what they said were ranking al-Qaeda members in Iraq as further evidence of Saddam’s support for terrorism. Tariq Aziz, Iraq’s deputy prime minister, responded in a CBS interview that the al-Qaeda members are in the northern part of the country under the control of Kurdish opposition leader Jalal Talabani, “an ally of Mr. Rumsfeld.”

“I’m not suggesting al-Qaeda is under the protection of the Kurds,” Armitage said in response to a question at a news conference in Tokyo. “I don’t think the Kurds have any more affection for al-Qaeda than anyone else.” But he said their presence in “disputed territory” of northern Iraq places them outside the reach of Saddam’s government.

Armitage’s efforts to build support for possible military action against Iraq got a wary response in Japan, the chief U.S. ally in Asia. But he stressed at the end of a six-day trip to the region Wednesday that he is not seeking a commitment yet.

“I didn’t come to ask Japan to do something specifically on Iraq, or anything else. I came to confer,” Armitage said before leaving for the United States. “We came to discuss our views.”

On the heels of his departure, China and India, two of the countries he visited, spoke out against the use of force to topple Hussein, a course Vice President Dick Cheney said on Monday is justified by the threat presented by Baghdad’s weapons of mass destruction.

Armitage insisted Wednesday that President Bush has not decided to launch an attack. And he repeated assurances that once a course of action is decided, Washington will disclose the evidence for its action and embark on further consultations with allies.