One of the main Iraqi Kurdish factions in northern Iraq says it is under attack from an armed Islamic group with links to Osama bin Laden.
Behroz Galali is the Ankara representative of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), which has clashed with the extremist Islamic faction known as Jund al-Islami (Soldiers of Islam).
Mr. Galali, who declined a recorded interview, told VOA that PUK forces have been under attack from Jund Al Islami and another, Iranian-backed Islamic group called the Islamic Movement of Kurdistan in and around the town of Halabja, near Iraq's border with Iran. Last week PUK forces seized Halabja from the Islamists' control after heavy fighting.
But Mr. Galali says the Islamic groups still control several villages in the Bayana and Tawall districts, also bordering Iran.
Officials from the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which administers the northern two-thirds of the Kurdish enclave, say that Jund al-Islami has begun what they describe as a reign of terror.
In an attack against PUK forces last week the group shot dead and beheaded PUK fighters and gouged out their eyes. Images of the slain fighters have been repeatedly broadcast on PUK-controlled Kurdish Television.
The Islamic group has banned all radio and television broadcasts in areas under its control, on grounds that they are un-Islamic. It has also segregated schools, and women are no longer permitted to appear in public without covering their heads.
Iraqi Kurdish officials say Jund al-Islami was formed only four months ago and brings together some 300 members of various extremist Islamic groups allegedly backed by Iran.
But according to PUK representative Galali, many Jund al-Islami fighters were trained at Osama bin Laden's camps in Afghanistan. Their aim, he says, is to undermine the Iraqi Kurds' experiment with self-rule.
Northern Iraq has been controlled by the PUK and the KDP since 1991. That is when the Gulf War allies established the "no-fly" zone over northern Iraq to protect an estimated three million Iraqi Kurds against possible attack by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's forces in the wake of their failed rebellion against him.
Western diplomats who closely monitor developments in northern Iraq play down alleged links between Jund al Islami and Osama bin Laden, saying there is little evidence to support such claims.