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Radical Islam In Iraqi Kurdistan: The Mouse That Roared?


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


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