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Islamists escalate fight in N. Iraq

Al Qaeda-backed 'Soldiers of God' are gaining strength and tying up Kurdish forces, potential US allies in Iraq.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 22, 2002



THE SHINIRWE FRONT, NORTHERN IRAQ

The morning sun rises over inhospitable rocks as wind-chilled Kurdish fighters in northern Iraq stare from a mountain rampart at their quarry below: Al Qaeda-backed Islamic militants.

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The US military refrained from carrying out plans to strike the Ansar al-Islam ("Soldiers of God") stronghold last August - when intelligence reports indicated they were testing lethal chemicals. But their presence may yet affect America's Iraq strategy.

Kurdish forces facing off against some 650 members of Ansar say fighting on this front is tying up troops that could be preparing to assist with any American effort to topple the Iraq regime.

"These Islamists are like a time bomb: The minute we attack Baghdad, and leave these positions, they will attack us from behind," says Sheikh Jafar Mustapha, a senior commander of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), one of two Kurdish militias in northern Iraq.

Just a few miles wide, the sliver of Ansar- controlled turf is protected by other armed Kurdish Islamist allies on two sides, and abuts the Iranian border behind. In front, facing the PUK troops, is an impenetrable strip of landmines and explosives. "We would be happy if the Americans came here to destroy [Ansar]. They can take down the whole mountain," Sheikh Jafar says. "We can't do anything against them, though we have 25 times their number."

KURDISH sources, a ranking Ansar defector, and analysts say that Ansar numbers have grown in recent months and include 80 or so Arabs, and others trained by Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. But they say that Ansar morale has dropped, since Iran helped orchestrate the arrest of their leader, Mullah Krekar, in the Netherlands in September.

Despite past concerns that conservative elements in Iran supported this Islamist group, or at least turned a blind eye to their activities, Kurdish officials say that Iran is now promising to help them. Iran has warned Ansar to move three miles from the border - a move that would force it into the PUK front line, as well as keep any US attack away from Iran's border.

"They still pose a significant risk [within the region], and have definitely shared Al Qaeda's training structure," says Rohan Gunaratna, author of "Inside Al Qaeda: Global Network of Terror," contacted in Malaysia. He says that two of the scores of Al Qaeda training videotapes that were found in Afghanistan, and were aired by CNN in August, showed Ansar's Kurdish parent organization at work.

"They are more of a militia organization - not a typical terrorist cell," says Mr. Gunaratna, noting the Kurds' "substantial early connection" with Al Qaeda. "They are not so committed to [attacking] the West, but to local guerrilla action."

Indeed, Ansar hit squads attacked a PUK checkpoint near the town of Halabja - six miles from this front line - two weeks ago, killing three Kurds. Prior to that, a video shop was blown up - after one failed attempt - in the town of Said Sadik.

Behind such attacks is a long-range Al Qaeda plan for Kurdistan, says an Ansar defector arrested by the PUK in April when he visited an Ansar safe house in the regional capital of Sulaymaniyah, hours after a gunman sought refuge in the same house after failing in an attempt to assassinate PUK Prime Minister Barham Salih.

The details of Ansar's links with Al Qaeda in Afghanistan (a partial transcript of the Monitor interview with the defector was examined by Gunaratna) indicate that the former Ansar commander is telling the truth. The commander, interviewed in the PUK's Sulaymaniyah detention facility, asked that the pseudonym Rebwar Kadr Said be used, to protect his family.

Mr. Said says links between Kurdish Islamist groups to Afghanistan go back to the 1980s, when Abdullah Azzam, one of the founders of the Al Qaeda terrorist organization, held Mullah Krekar and a Palestinian man by the hand, and told his followers: "Take care of these two," meaning the groups each leader represented, Kurds and Palestinians.

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