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.
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"We have captured two of [Ansar's] bases and found the walls covered with poems and graffiti praising bin Laden and the Sept. 11 attacks on the US," says Mustapha Saed Qada, a PUK commander. "In one, there is a picture of the twin towers with a drawing of bin Laden standing on the top holding a Kalashnikov rifle in one hand and a knife in the other." He adds that the group has received $600,000 from the bin Laden network, and a delivery of weapons and Toyota landcruisers.Skip to next paragraph
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In an interview with the Kurdish newspaper Hawlati, the group's leader, Mala Kreker, declared bin Laden the "crown on the head of the Islamic nation."
Kurdish military sources say that Ansar al-Islam's Mr. Kreker is a former member of a Kurdish Islamic party who joined Ansar al-Islam after its formation in September. Kreker replaced Abu Abdullah Shafae an Iraqi Kurd who trained with Al Qaeda in Afghanistan for 10 years and changed his name from Warya Holery. Mr. Shafae is now Ansar al-Islam's deputy.
Another of the group's leaders, Abu Abdul Rahman who, the Kurds claim, was sent to northern Iraq by bin Laden was killed in fighting in October.
Commander Qada also claims that Ansar al-Islam has ties to agents of Saddam Hussein operating in northern Iraq. "We have picked up conversations on our radios between Iraqis and [Ansar] al-Islam," he says from his military base in Halabja. "I believe that Iraq is also funding [Ansar] al-Islam. There are no hard facts as yet, but I believe that under the table they are supporting them because it will cause further instability for the Kurds."
Barhim Salih, a PUK leader, says a second group affiliated with Ansar al-Islam is working from the Baghdad-controlled city of Mosul.
The Kurdish sources say Hussein's involvement in any mission to destabilize their autonomous ministate would not surprise them. Since 1991, Baghdad has been unable to control the north, because of the no-fly zone created by the US and England and enforced by the US military from a base in Turkey.
Still, in November, Hussein warned that he would "cut out the tongues" of any Kurds who defied him. This month he told the Kurds not to be "deceived" by "the foreigner." But he added: "I do not want anyone to be under the illusion that this leadership is calling for dialogue because it is under futile threats."
Since Sept. 11, Qada says the Iraqi Army has doubled its troops stationed on the border between government-controlled Iraq and the area the Kurds control. It is a clear sign, Qada says, that Hussein will attack them if the US threatens his regime.
Attempts by the PUK to renew negotiations with the group during the past month have failed, and Kurdish sources say Ansar al-Islam is preparing to fight back.
Kurd party leaders say some 2,000 Kurdish soldiers stationed high in the mountains of northern Iraq, near the Kurdish city of Halabja, are trading mortar fire with Ansar al-Islam. Both sides have suffered casualties. "We have to treat them seriously, because they are treating us seriously," Mr. Salih says, adding that the US is aware of the Kurdish struggle with Al Qaeda.
Howard LaFranchi in Washington contributed to this report.