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Central Asia: IMU Leader Says Group's Goal Is 'Return Of Islam'

The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan is considered by most Central Asian states as the greatest threat to security in the region. The movement's leaders rarely give interviews, but Zubair ibn Abdulrahim, one of its top officials, recently spoke with RFE/RL's Uzbek Service. RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Pannier reports.

Prague, 6 June 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, or IMU, is today considered the most dangerous threat to security in CIS countries of Central Asia.

During the past two summers, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan government forces have fought with armed IMU groups. In part because of these conflicts, their northern neighbor, Kazakhstan, has fortified its borders with the two countries, while Tajikistan seems caught in the middle.

Periodically, the Uzbek and Kyrgyz governments allege that the IMU uses bases in Tajikistan's eastern mountains. Each time the charge is made, the Tajik government sends a delegation to the mountains and then denies any IMU presence.

Russia links the IMU to Chechen militants. China links the group to Muslim Uighur separatists in its western Xinjiang Province, bordering Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan.

One theory about the IMU is shared by the Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Uzbek, Russian, and Chinese governments. They all agree that the IMU, the Chechens, and the Uighurs are part of a network of groups which find safe haven in Afghanistan, where they receive support from the ruling Taliban movement and, possibly, from the international terrorist Osama bin Laden.

The IMU itself rarely presents its case to the media. But its leaders have given interviews to Iranian Radio, the BBC and, most recently, to RFE/RL.

Zubair ibn Abdulrahim is one of the IMU leaders. He is the immediate subordinate of Takhir Yuldash, believed to be the ideological -- or, perhaps more precisely, religious -- head of the militantly Islamic IMU. In an interview late last week (2 June) with RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, Zubair said his official title was chairman of the IMU's "diwan," or supreme religious council. He said he wanted to clear up what he said were misconceptions about the IMU.

Government officials in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan and reports in the Russian and Pakistani press say the IMU recently broadened its aims and declared itself to be the Islamic Party of Turkestan. According to these reports, the newly renamed movement now brings together separatist fighters in Xinjiang Province and Kashmir in a much-expanded struggle. Their goal was said to be an Islamic state stretching from western China to the Caspian Sea.

Zubair said the reports were not true: "We have only one enemy -- the Tashkent regime. We have no problems with neighboring countries. Our name has not changed." But Zubair did say there are many ethnic groups in the IMU:

"Our organization does not follow only Uzbek interests. We are an Islamic group. There are many ethnic groups -- Kyrgyz, Kazakhs, and even Uighurs -- but because we are all from Uzbekistan, we call ourselves the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan."

As for the IMU's relations with Afghanistan's Taliban movement, Zubair denied reports that his movement is currently fighting alongside Taliban troops in the country's northern Takhar Province. But he did confirm there is a connection.

"We are following our own goals and the Taliban knows what those goals are. But IMU fighters are not fighting alongside the Taliban."

Some allege that much of the IMU's finances come from lucrative drug trafficking out of Afghanistan. Zubair declined to provide details of the IMU's sources of support, but he did say the movement maintains what he called "enterprises" both inside and outside of Uzbekistan.

"Our organization has its own enterprises in foreign countries, even in Tashkent. Their interest is in Islam. Their hope is the return of Islam to the country."

Zubair also declined to comment on the whereabouts of the IMU's military commander, Juma Namangani. But he added that if anyone wants a response from the "commander," then Juma Namangani is prepared to answer by military means.

Militarily, the IMU has not had much success in its two summers of fighting. The movement has succeeded in creating great concern in the region -- one example being Kyrgyzstan's decision to raise its defense spending to 13 percent of the budget.

But there are increasing numbers of reports from the region of people being caught distributing pamphlets with Islamic literature. Some of the literature calls for the overthrow of the Uzbek government and others demand the ouster of all the current regimes in the area.

In response, alleged members of banned Islamic parties are being arrested almost every week in at least one of the Central Asian countries. There have been trials against suspected members of these groups, with long prison sentences given out, in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. The same is true to a lesser degree in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

All of this suggests that the IMU has tapped into a vein of popular discontent in Central Asia. While few may share all the IMU's ideas, there appears to be an increasing number of people that believes a change in the government is needed.