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Iraq: Militant Kurdish Group Shows No Sign Of Fading Despite Arrest Of Leader

By Hiwa Osman

Islamic Kurdish militants have carved out an enclave in northern Iraq where they have established a Taliban-style rule and, Kurdish officials say, are giving refuge to scores of former Al-Qaeda fighters from Afghanistan. The militants suffered a setback two months ago when their leader, who was in Iran, was deported by Tehran and later arrested in the Netherlands. But this month the group sought to stage a comeback, threatening to kidnap foreigners as bargaining chips and launching an attack to claim more territory by force. Independent correspondent Hiwa Osman recently visited northern Iraq area and filed this report on the militants' efforts.

Halabjah, Iraq; 20 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Kurdish authorities in northern Iraq are warning UN and foreign aid workers in the area of possible kidnap attempts by the hard-line Kurdish Islamic militant group Ansar al-Islam.

According to security sources in the Kurdish regional government, the group is trying to capture people, particularly foreigners, so that it can use them as hostages in exchange for their leader Mullah Krekar, who is under detention in the Netherlands.

The warning comes as the group has stepped up clashes with one of the two dominant Kurdish factions in northern Iraq, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). The clashes resume efforts by Ansar al-Islam -- which is believed to have 300 to 400 fighters -- to carve out a durable stronghold for itself along the Iranian border in areas formerly under the PUK's control

Earlier this month (4 November), the Islamic militant group launched an early morning attack against a PUK checkpoint near the town of Halabjah. The group later posted a videotape of the attack -- including sounds and scenes of the combat -- on its Internet site.

Using hand grenades and machine guns, some 50 members of the group raided the Zamaqi checkpoint, killing three and injuring 14 members of the PUK police and security force.

The 25 members of the PUK unit at the checkpoint returned fire and forced Ansar al-Islam to retreat to a nearby village after a one-hour battle, leaving behind two of their dead.

Ansar al-Islam formed from radical groups that have declared a holy struggle against the dominant secular PUK and its rival, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). Apart from the miltants, there is also a mainstream nonviolent Islamic opposition in northern Iraq. This opposition is recognized by the secular parties and permitted to engage in political activities.

The militant group, composed mostly of Iraqi Kurds, is reported to include foreign fighters, among them Jordanians, Moroccans, Palestinians, and Afghans. Some of the foreigners are believed by Kurdish authorities to be Al-Qaeda members who fled Afghanistan to northern Iraq since the collapse of the Taliban last year.

This month's attack was the first of its kind since the arrest of Ansar al-Islam's leader Mullah Krekar in September. Dutch police arrested Krekar, an Iraqi Kurd whose real name is Najmuddin Faraq Ahmad, after he was deported by Tehran and stopped in Amsterdam en route to Norway, where he has refugee status. He is being detained for questioning on suspicion of links to Al-Qaeda.

Barham Salih, the PUK government's prime minister, toured the scene of the fighting shortly after the clash. He said the size of the attack showed that it was well planned. "For them to have attacked in a large force, some 50 people or so, it seems to have been very well planned. And for them to have failed in achieving their objective and leaving behind bodies of their killed shows they have failed miserably."

Salih praised the performance of the PUK soldiers, known as "peshmerga." But he said the attackers remain a force to be taken seriously. "As you could see the morale of the peshmerga was very good despite the fact that [the attackers] had the element of surprise. Not only [has the attack] failed but they also left behind bodies. We think that they have also suffered many more casualties that they took back with them. They are a force. We need to take them seriously. They are a security threat but hopefully we are able to take care of them and contain that threat."

Ansar al-Islam, which controls mountains above Halabjah, began carving out territory for itself in September 2001. Over the past year, it has sought to institute Taliban-like strictures in the area they control. The group's leader, Mullah Krekar, has links with Afghanistan which date back to the war against Soviet occupation in the 1980s. He also studied Islamic law in Pakistan under Palestinian scholar and mentor of Osama bin Laden, Abdullah Azzam.

Ansar al-Islam came to world attention after its fighters beheaded some 200 PUK members following a battle near Halabja in September 2001. The group also is believed to be behind a number of explosions and assassination attempts against senior Kurdish officials, including one against PUK Prime Minister Salih in April.

Salih said this month's attack appeared aimed at rebuilding the morale of the group, which is reported to have plummeted since Krekar's arrest. "This group is suffering from a serious problem after the arrest of Mullah Krekar. Their morale is flagging and one would estimate that this attack is part of their plan to regain initiative and boost morale of their fighters. They want to destabilize the situation in Iraqi Kurdistan, but fortunately our forces were able to deal with them properly and their attack was repulsed and they were unable to achieve their objectives."

As Ansar al-Islam has created a stronghold in northern Iraq, there are reports it enjoys the support of Tehran, whose territory its area borders. PUK officials say privately that Iran has repeatedly allowed Ansar al-Islam to make strategic retreats across its border as needed in its clashes with the PUK. Tehran denies it has extended any help to the group.

Some observers in the region see Tehran's expelling Mullah Krekar, but at the same time assisting the group in northern Iraq, as a further indication of Iran's interest in managing the group's development from afar. Tehran may see the Islamic militants as offering one means of exerting pressure upon Iraq's dominant Kurdish factions in hopes of dissuading them from developing too-close ties with Washington.

One observer told our correspondent that the arrest of Mullah Krekar will not be a serious long-term blow to the militants' organization. The move shifts the group's leadership back toward its original founder, Abu Abdullah al-Shafi'i, another hard-line militant who is believed to have been in Afghanistan during the Taliban's rule in the 1990s. As the observer put it: "The old hard-line leader is back. The group gained a lot of publicity and they are still in their area." He added, "If Iran is serious, they should close their border to them."