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Taliban-style group grows in Iraq

In the Kurdish north, a new Islamist group with ties to Al Qaeda has killed women without burqas, seized villages.

By Catherine TaylorSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / March 15, 2002



HALABJA, NORTHERN IRAQ –

A radical Islamist group – with possible links to Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein – is growing and threatening the stability of the Kurdish region in northern Iraq.

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The group – Ansar al-Islam – emerged just days before the Sept. 11 attacks on the US. It delivered a fatwa, or manifesto, to the citizens in mountain villages against "the blasphemous secularist, political, social, and cultural" society there, according to Kurdish party leaders.

Since, Ansar al-Islam has nearly doubled in size to 700, including Iraqis, Jordanians, Moroccans, Palestinians, and Afghans – a composition similar to the multinational Al Qaeda network. Villagers here claim it has ransacked and razed beauty salons, burned schools for girls, and murdered women in the streets for refusing to wear the burqa. It has seized a Taliban-style enclave of 4,000 civilians and several villages near the Iran border.

With the US dedicated to rooting out Al Qaeda's influence wherever it surfaces in the world, a group of Islamic extremists in northern Iraq with even loose ties to Al Qaeda could complicate further any Iraq intervention. Already the US is in a delicate dance with allies over how to handle Iraq, with many warning that the US must consider the implications of possible instability that a move to topple Hussein could cause.

The emergence of the group comes as the US ramps up pressure on the Hussein regime in Iraq over weapons development. In a White House press conference on Wednesday, President Bush said Hussein "is a problem, and we're going to deal with him."

The State Department did not have extensive information on Ansar al-Islam, but one official there said he was aware of its existence and connection to Al Qaeda.

US ties to Kurd groups

The US has longtime ties to Iraq's Kurdish opposition groups, and would have to gauge how those groups – which inspire varying levels of confidence among key US officials – might want to exploit or downplay the existence of groups with ties to bin Laden in their midst.

Ansar is challenging the two main Kurdish political factions – the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) – in northern Iraq.

But the PUK and KDP – which have spent much of the past 11 years fighting among themselves for control of northern Iraq – say they have united against this common enemy.

"[Ansar] al-Islam is a kind of Taliban," says PUK leader Jalal Talibani. "They are terrorists who have declared war against all Kurdish political parties. We gave them a chance to change their ways ... and end their terrorist acts. But if we can't do it through dialogue, we are obliged to use force."

Kurdish fighters, known as peshmerga, now patrol the road between Iraqi Kurdistan's southern city of Sulaymaniyah and Halabja.

On Sept. 23, Kurds here say, guerrillas ambushed a PUK unit and killed 42 soldiers. The ambush came after negotiations between the PUK and Ansar al-Islam, offering amnesty in return for peace, failed to end their activities.

Since the Sept. 23 ambush, peshmerga have pushed Ansar al-Islam back toward the Iranian border where they retain a stronghold in the town of Biara and surrounding villages.

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