Tucked away in a handful of villages in a remote pocket of
Iraqi Kurdistan, a small group of radical Islamist fighters has been accused of
being the Kurdish offspring of the al-Qaeda network, and thus has become a fresh
target in the international war on terrorism. To compensate for its limited reach
and popularity, this group, called Ansar al-Islam (Partisans of Islam), has built
on tenuous regional alliances to survive in the harsh mountainous environment above
the town of Halabja in northwestern Iraq, just shy of the border with Iran. These
alliances have enhanced its role as a minor spoiler in predominantly
secular Kurdish politics in the Suleimaniyeh governorate.
Ansar al-Islam has been engaged there in a military stand-off
with irregular forces of the regional government and has carried out sporadic attacks
– with varying degrees of success – against secular Kurdish targets. In order to defeat
this local rival through external intervention, the main parties that control the Kurdish
enclave in northern Iraq have played up the threat it poses and its alleged links with terrorism.
Thanks to growing media exposure and the Bush administration's claim
that Ansar al-Islam is beholden to both al-Qaeda and the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein,
this small band of Islamist fighters who say they seek to impose an Islamic state in the
Kurdish areas of northern Iraq has become one of Washington's focal points as it makes the
case for a war on the Iraqi regime. Administration officials have used Ansar al-Islam as
Exhibit A in their claim that the regime in Baghdad not only is highly repressive and has,
or seeks to acquire, weapons of mass destruction, but also is a major risk to share such
weapons with terrorist groups for use against Western targets. This has catapulted the small
extremist group to a significance that does not appear warranted by the known facts.
Despite intense media coverage in the past few months, little is certain
about the group, whose fighters have remained secluded in a narrow wedge of the undulating
hills that rise from the Halabja Plain up to the border. Villagers displaced by the group
complain of harsh Taliban-like restrictions placed on the population and damage done to
local shrines and institutions. Ansar adherents detained by the regional government claim
that the group comprises a number of non-Kurdish fighters who arrived from Afghanistan
following the U.S.-led war against the Taliban in the fall of 2001. They also describe camps
where fighters are trained in basic infantry skills and suicide bombings for possible dispatch
throughout the world.
In his presentation on Iraq at the U.N. Security Council on 5 February 2003,
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell made two important claims regarding Ansar al-Islam: that
a purported al-Qaeda operative, Abu Musab Zarqawi, established a "poison and explosive training
centre camp" in the small area under Ansar's control and that the Iraqi regime has "an agent in
the most senior levels of" Ansar. ICG is not in a position to evaluate these claims independently,
which appear principally to be based on interrogations of detainees. If substantiated, of course,
they would be extremely serious. Ansar's leader, Najmeddin Faraj Ahmad, known to his followers as
Mullah Krekar, has vehemently denied any links with al-Qaeda and Baghdad. In the absence of further
evidence, the only thing that is indisputable is that the group could not survive without the
support of powerful factions in neighbouring Iran, its sole lifeline to the outside world.
Ansar al-Islam is an offshoot of an Islamist movement that
has a long history in Kurdish politics and whose main proponent, the Islamic
Movement in Iraqi Kurdistan (IMIK), maintains its headquarters in Halabja,
where it occupies the mayoralty. Although it is the third-largest political
force in the Kurdish enclave, it failed to reach the 7 per cent threshold in the
1992 Kurdish elections necessary for participation in the regional parliament.
It has thus been reduced to competing for influence in local elections and has
remained largely confined to the Halabja area, where it could mutate but hardly
proliferate. Its main rival is the staunchly secular Patriotic Union of Kurdistan
(PUK), which controls the government in the eastern half of Iraqi Kurdistan.
Having lost a number of its fighters in clashes with Ansar
al-Islam, it is not surprising that the PUK has sought to emphasise the group’s
putative terrorist connections, making detained Ansar followers available to
foreign journalists and shepherding CIA agents and members of U.S. Special
Forces up the mountain slopes to observe Ansar positions. But in the run-up to
a possible war in Iraq, there is no hard evidence to suggest that Ansar
al-Islam is more than a minor irritant in local Kurdish politics.
Amman/Brussels, 7 February 2003