Evidence is emerging that a group linked to Al-Qaeda has established an enclave in northern Iraq as a possible safe haven for the global terrorist movement. The group, called Ansar al-Islam, has clashed repeatedly over the past several months with one of the Kurdish factions that controls northern Iraq, proving that it is well-armed, well-financed, and determined to stay.
Prague, 17 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Since September, an Islamic group with alleged links to Al-Qaeda has carved out a Taliban-style enclave in northern Iraq.
The party, Ansar al-Islam, is made up of Iraqi Kurds and an unknown number of foreigners who are reported to include Jordanians, Moroccans, Palestinians, and Afghans. Altogether, it has some 700 fighters who have seized areas near the town of Halabja, close to the Iranian border.
News reports quote local residents as saying the group imposes its own strict version of Islamic law. It is said to have outlawed beauty salons, burned schools for girls, and murdered some women who have refused to wear head-to-toe coverings.
At the same time, the group has engaged in armed clashes with the dominant Iraqi Kurdish faction in its area, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). The group ambushed a PUK unit in late September, reportedly killing 42 soldiers. Since then, the two sides have engaged in periodic skirmishes in which, the PUK says, the group has proved itself to be well-armed and well-organized.
Hiwa Osman is a London-based independent journalist who recently visited the region. He told RFE/RL that Ansar al-Islam has gained strength rapidly since September and now controls some three dozen villages. "According to some sources that I have interviewed in the region surrounding the Ansar al-Islam area, there was talk of 36 villages under the control of Ansar al-Islam. They have instituted a Taliban-style rule and have banned music, pictures, and advertising. I have interviewed some students who came from [these villages], and they were saying that they were unable to go back to the area because they are known to be too secular or as apostates to the Ansar al-Islam and they didn't feel very secure," Osman said.
"On the other hand," he added, "people who are indigenous to the area and have stayed in the area have managed to somehow adapt to this new rule in their villages, simply because they would rather deal with that oppressive rule rather than going and living in tent cities as IDPs [internally displaced persons] near the [Iraqi Kurd] cities of Suleimaniyeh or Irbil."
By itself, the emergence of a new armed group in northern Kurdistan is not surprising. The mountainous area is a refuge for numerous armed groups apart from the other dominant Iraqi Kurd faction, the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP). These include the remnants of the Turkish-Kurd Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has been driven out of southern Turkey by Ankara.
It also is no surprise to find Islamist groups in the region. The area has long been home to the armed Iranian-backed Islamic Unity Movement of Kurdistan, which recently split into several new groups, as well as a nonviolent Islamist movement.
But observers say that Ansar al-Islam is unique in that it appears to have close ties to Al-Qaeda and to be creating a refuge for the global terrorist organization in northeastern Iraq.
Evidence of ties between Ansar al-Islam and Al-Qaeda has come in testimony from members of the group whom the PUK has captured in clashes. The prisoners are held in a jail in the eastern city of Suleimaniyeh, the PUK's stronghold.
The captured fighters say that Ansar al-Islam, originally called Jund al-Islam, was established last year after some splinter groups broke away from the Islamic Unity Movement of Kurdistan and declared a holy struggle.
They also say several of the group's key leaders fought in Afghanistan and trained with Al-Qaeda there. And they say some Al-Qaeda members fleeing Afghanistan have been secretly brought into Ansar al-Islam's territory.
Several Western correspondents have met with the prisoners and quoted them in reports for, among others, the respected U.S. weekly magazine "The New Yorker" and U.S. public television. So far, U.S. officials have declined to comment publicly on the news reports. But some officials have told reporters privately that it is "quite plausible" that Al-Qaeda operatives are working with Ansar al-Islam, although there is no independent evidence confirming the prisoners' testimony.
Some of the captives give detailed accounts of personal contacts with Al-Qaeda leaders, including one prisoner, an Iranian Arab, who said he smuggled arms from Iraq to Afghanistan.
He also said that among the items he smuggled were canisters of liquids cooled by portable refrigerators -- giving rise to press speculation that he may have transported biological-weapons material from Iraq to Afghanistan. The prisoner said he was instructed to smuggle the canisters to Afghanistan by Iraq's intelligence service, but was never told their contents.
If Baghdad did supply chemical and biological weaponry to Al-Qaeda, that would greatly strengthen Washington's argument that Baghdad might seek to supply weapons of mass destruction to terrorists.
As Ansar al-Islam has created its enclave in northern Iraq, there are many reports that indicate it may enjoy the support of both Baghdad and Tehran.
Britain's "Daily Telegraph" has quoted local residents as saying trucks laden with arms have come to Ansar al-Islam from the Baghdad-controlled city of Jalawla. The paper says Western military advisers also have seen members of Iraq's Republican Guards in villages run by the militants.
"The New Yorker" quotes an Iraqi intelligence agent captured by the PUK, Qassem Hussein Muhammad, as saying that he had been sent by Baghdad to make contact with a senior Iraqi secret-service member who was operating with Ansar al-Islam. He said the assignment was prompted by fears in Baghdad that the secret-service member had been captured.
Similarly, Tehran is reported to have aided Ansar al-Islam to make strategic retreats over the Iranian border as needed in its clashes with the PUK. Some correspondents say that has convinced the PUK not to pursue too hot a war with Ansar al-Islam for fear of complicating its own relations with Iran. The PUK-controlled area of northern Iraq lies along the Iranian border.
Independent journalist Osman said that Ansar al-Islam has good ties with Baghdad and Tehran because all three share common interests. "Everyone [in northern Iraq] is seeing Ansar al-Islam as an Iranian-Iraqi joint venture. Basically, this anti-American sentiment is putting the three in the same trench. Ansar al-Islam is an Al-Qaeda-inspired group. Iran opposes any attack by the United States on Iraq. Iraq, for obvious reasons, is against America," Osman said.
Osman also said that neither Tehran nor Baghdad wants to see the Iraqi Kurds grow too strong as they remain outside Baghdad's direct control under the protection of the U.S.- and British-patrolled no-fly zone. He said both capitals see encouraging the Islamic militants as one way to exert pressure on the Iraqi Kurd factions and discourage them from developing too close ties with Washington.
If Ansar al-Islam does receive significant support from Baghdad and Tehran, it would mean that the group is shielding Al-Qaeda members with those governments' approval. Washington has repeatedly accused Iran of allowing some Al-Qaeda fighters to flee from Afghanistan across the Iranian border and on to other countries. Tehran has denied those charges.
U.S. President George W. Bush early this year branded both Baghdad and Tehran as part of an "axis of evil" that poses a security threat for the United States. He has said that Iraqi and Iranian programs to develop weapons of mass destruction raise the possibility that these governments may one day supply such weapons to international terrorist organizations for use in attacks on American and Western interests.