Iraqi funds, training fuel Islamic terror group
Two Iraqi Arabs held in a Kurdish prison tell of contacts among Ansar al-Islam, Al Qaeda, and aides to the Iraqi president.
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One reason they were leery of attracting the attention of fellow Iraqis may have been clandestine support for the Kurdish Islamists from the Baghdad regime. Qassem Hussein Mohamed, a big-boned, mustachioed Saddam lookalike who says he worked for Baghdad's Mukhabarat intelligence for two decades, says that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has clandestinely supported Ansar al-Islam for several years.Skip to next paragraph
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"[Ansar] and Al Qaeda groups were trained by graduates of the Mukhabarat's School 999 military intelligence," says Mr. Mohamed, who agreed to be interviewed separately in the Sulaymaniyah interrogation room. As with Fatah, there were no apparent signs that he had been compelled to speak, and Kurdish investigators say they are convinced based on other, confirmable parts of his story that he is a Mukhabarat agent.
"My information is that the Iraqi government was directly supporting [Al Qaeda] with weapons and explosives," he says. "[Ansar] was part of Al Qaeda, and given support with training and money."
Saddam Hussein did not create Ansar al-Islam, though Mohamed compared Baghdad's role to the overt help Iraq gives the anti-Iran Mujahideen e-Khalq forces, which are known to be completely controlled by Iraqi intelligence within Iraq's borders.
Among other known Ansar leaders, Mohamed says Abu Wa'el was the most influential, was on the Iraqi intelligence payroll, and served as a liaison between Baghdad and Al Qaeda. Mohamed says his own mission to northern Iraq during which he was detained by the PUK is proof of that link. "After America attacked Afghanistan, Baghdad lost contact with [Abu Wa'el]," Mohamed says. "They sent me to check out Abu Wa'el, to make sure he was not dead or captured, and to reestablish contact."
Mohamed says PUK intelligence operatives apparently had been following him for some time, and clearly knew he was trying to contact the militants in northern Iraq.
The possibility of Iraq's support for Ansar if only to destabilize the Kurdish territory that exists beyond Baghdad's control does not surprise Kurdish officials. They note that President Hussein has recently embraced Islamic groups, and pays $10,000 each to the families of Palestinian suicide bombers in Israel, to solidify his credentials. Supporting Ansar, too, may provide Hussein with a way to get at his Kurdish enemies.
"There has been a marked change in Saddam's thinking in the past five years," says Hoshyar Zebari, a senior Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) official, regarding Baghdad's shift from hardline secularism, to backing Islamists.
"[Ansar] are local, home-grown Islamic terrorists, inspired by Al Qaeda and bin Laden. They think the main enemy is the US, and that Islam can't be free unless they get rid of blasphemous groups and infidels, which they consider the KDP and PUK to be," Mr. Zebari says. "Saddam's intelligence is very good at penetrating small groups."
Which is exactly what has happened to Ansar, says former Mukhabarat operative Mohamed. "The government does not like this 'safe haven,' and wants to destroy and destabilize everyone, everywhere," Mohamed says. "They are using [Ansar] as a base to destabilize northern Iraq, and assassinate and kill people. Baghdad will never give up supporting them."
Several additional reports unconfirmed have surfaced, alleging that Ansar leaders are sheltering senior Al Qaeda figures who slipped across the border from Iran, after fleeing Afghanistan.
But Sheikh Sadiq Abdulaziz, the deputy leader of the IMK now weakened by the loss of breakaway factions denies there is any link to bin Laden other than the group draws its inspiration from him.
"People who see Osama on television and hear Osama, want to be like Osama," Sheikh Sadiq says in his Halabja office. Ahson Ali Abdulaziz, one of the leaders of Ansar, is the nephew of Sheikh Sadiq and the son of IMK leader Mullah Ali Abdulaziz.
Despite these ties, some Kurdish and local Islamic leaders downplay the Ansar threat and argue that Ansar has forsaken violence.
"In Islam, we want to be martyrs, but we can't make a battle against our own people," the sheikh says, dismissing as "rumors" reports that Arabs and Al Qaeda fighters are among the militants. "[Ansar] has changed their name, their ideas, and methods."
PUK leader Jalal Talabani says that the collapse of Al Qaeda and Taliban rule will ultimately weaken the group. "Before, when there was Afghanistan, all these groups thought they had a base," he says, hurriedly clicking a set of prayer beads between his fingers. "They lost this hope, and are isolated. Now they are desperate. We are in negotiations with them that the Arabs must leave. We want to solve it peacefully. We are giving them a chance."
The Monitor will publish the account of another man tomorrow previously unknown information that could link Iraq to plans for anti-US terrorism.