Rumbles of radicalism in Kurdistan
Al Qaeda's presence stunned Iraq's moderate north.
ARBIL AND SULAYMANIYAH, IRAQ — In the gathering dark inside the cavernous mosque, Mullah Omar Sweri takes his time leading the last Muslim prayer session of the day.
The Sunni preacher speaks of moderation, a message commonly heard in the officially monitored mosques of the Kurdish north. The contrast could not be greater, measured against the harsh rhetoric of the Sunni militants to the south, who drive Iraq's insurgency.
So it was a surprise to many Kurds that small Al Qaeda and Ansar al-Sunna cells were among six groups of extremists arrested in Arbil this summer - and that nearly all the militants were home-grown Kurds.
"Kurds are religious people, but they have never been extremists - God does not need extremists," says Mullah Sweri. "Extremism is not an action, it is a reaction. So the more injustice grows in a society, the more extremism there will be."
While the cells were small, they were lethal. Among them were militants deemed responsible for suicide bombings on May 4 and June 20 that killed more than 75 people in Arbil, mostly police recruits. In confessions shown on TV, some described mortar attacks on South Korean coalition troops, and a botched remote-controlled bombing.
In the totality of violence in Iraq today, the northern Iraq attacks and subsequent arrests might seem little more than a footnote. But the fact that these militants are Kurds highlights a little-known history of how Islamist ideology first came to northern Iraq - and how today it is helping bolster the ranks of the insurgency.
Analysts say that key factors include Saudi Arabia's proselytization and mosque-building here in the 1990s, combined with the return of mujahideen veterans from the Afghan war against the Soviet Union.
"They were trying to create a new generation of jihadists in Kurdistan," says Nyaz Saeed Ali, a specialist on Islamic Fundamentalism who heads the "Cadre's Institute" of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), one of two main political parties in northern Iraq.
"When they came back they wanted to duplicate the [Afghan] experience in Kurdistan, and fight the secular government," says Mr. Ali, who says he was unsuccessfully targeted last year by one Ansar cell. "The purpose of their return was not to fight Saddam Hussein, but secular Kurds."
Many bolstered the ranks of the Islamic Movement of Kurdistan (IMK), which fought the PUK from 1993, and later joined its regional government. By the time the US invaded Iraq a decade later, Islamist groups had split and split again, and targeted most Kurdish political factions. The most significant to emerge, by 2001, was Ansar al-Islam.
Though it had ties with Al Qaeda, Ansar al-Islam bases were limited to a remote strip of villages on Iraq's northeastern border with Iran where, ironically, they were part of the Kurdish safe haven protected by US and British warplanes. The bases were destroyed by US airstrikes in 2003.
But their growth here is also a cautionary parable of how a few persistent seeds of Islamic radicalism, no matter how unwelcoming the soil, can take tenuous root. Experts and security officials, as well as arrest patterns of Kurdish militants, indicate that after fleeing to Iran, one wing of dispersed Ansar members hooked up with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's Al Qaeda in Iraq, which works out of Baghdad, Fallujah, and western Anbar Province. A second wing, under the rubric Ansar al-Sunna, operates from points north such as Baquba, Tikrit, Mosul, and Kirkuk.
"There are two million people [in Kurdistan], and they have their ideas - at least 20 would follow radical thinking," says Esmat Arkoshi, the chief of security for the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) in Arbil. "When they were captured [and confessed publicly], they didn't know their religion deeply - they knew they had been cheated."
The lack of local sympathy for the extremists, and efficient Kurdish security operations, mean that most attacks here are ordered from bases elsewhere.
"There are some small, hidden signs of their presence in Kurdistan, but they are not easily recognizable, and work under the umbrella of [legal] Islamic parties," says Ali, the PUK Islamist expert. "We have our own agents among these groups, trained to infiltrate. They are under constant watch."
For years, the appeal of fighting for a cause has drawn young Kurdish men beyond Kurdistan's borders. The first key departure took place after the collapse of Kurdish resistance in 1975, led by Mustapha Barzani, in the aftermath of the Algeria agreement made between Iran and Iraq.
"The people gave up hope in [Kurdish] nationalist ideology, and began to look for alternatives," says Mohammed Ihsan, the Minister for Human Rights of the Kurdistan Regional Government. Many Kurds went to Iran, where the government, after the 1979 Islamic revolution, helped create Kurdish Islamic parties. Later, Saudi Arabia, in a bid to counter the growing power of Mr. Hussein, established links to Islamist Kurds.
Other Kurds traveled to Pakistan and eventually Afghanistan, where they trained and fought alongside the mujahideen against the Soviets.
These paths all coincided during the 1991 Gulf War and its aftermath, which witnessed a Kurdish uprising in northern Iraq. That rebellion failed to topple the government, but after an exodus of more than 1 million Kurdish refugees, it led to the creation of the Kurdish safe haven.
The Islamist Kurdish groups took advantage of this disorder, working under the guise of the Saudi-based International Islamic Relief Organization and other "charities," which pumped $22 million a month into Kurdish areas in 1992-93, says Mr. Ihsan.
"We were a devastated state, we had nothing," says Ihsan, who took part in a pre-war opposition conference in Beirut, where he said Saudi Arabia pushed hard for "their" Kurdish Islamists to be given a piece of the political pie. "They started to pay people, give them salaries and jobs, and we had nothing to offer."
In the decade starting in 1991, Saudi charities built 1,832 new mosques - a boom that shocked Kurdish officials to the point of clamping on new restrictions in 2001. Along with the mosques came the translated books and Saudi Arabia's Wahhabi teaching, and the introduction of the Salafi strain - which adheres to an even more puritanical, strict interpretation of the Koran and forms the basis of Al Qaeda ideology.
"Of course they tried to spread their ideologies here," says Mullah Omar Changiany, a Saudi-trained sheikh who was considered at the time one of the importers of Salafi thinking in Kurdistan, until his Sulaymaniyah mosque was burned down in 1993.
"After the uprising, after we had just got rid of Saddam Hussein, we were just out of a prison - we felt the taste of freedom," says Mullah Changiany. "[But] because of lack of experience, we committed mistakes."
Changiany now speaks with a moderate voice, and even conducts the daily religious program on one official Kurdish TV channel in Arbil. Today he says extremists "are far from the real Islam.
"I can say the trend is still level, not up or down," says Changiany. "It depends on the government, and how it deals with this [Islamist] problem. We shouldn't forget that terrorism is very organized and has purpose, so ... we should avoid giving excuses for terrorism to grow in our country."
"There are more groups inside; the main danger for Kurdistan is Islamic fundamentalism," says minister Ihsan. "You can divert a good Muslim to a terrorist Muslim very easily ... the answer is to fill the vacuum."
Ihsan faults the ideology itself, and says adherents can't be reformed. "Most of them are educated from the same school [of thought]," says Ihsan. "They may veer from the line, but they have the same conclusion: 'Start to rule, if anyone doesn't like it, kill them.' "