Two Iraqi Arabs held in a Kurdish prison tell of contacts among Ansar al-Islam, Al Qaeda, and aides to the Iraqi president.
HALABJA AND SULAYMANIYAH, NORTHERN IRAQ
The US Operation Anaconda has squeezed many Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters out of Afghanistan, but some of those forces are simply joining a budding conflict nearby, in Iraq, local security officials warn.
Ansar al-Islam, a Kurdish Islamic extremist group that has shaken Northern Iraq with bloody episodes of killing over the past 14 months, is being bolstered by the American rout of Osama bin Laden's diehards at Shah-e Kot, Afghanistan.
"Their numbers have been increasing, as [fighters] escape from Operation Anaconda," says a top security official in the region. "We don't know how many, but each day that goes by, they are more and more of a threat."
While Ansar is gaining strength in numbers, new information is emerging that ties the organization to both Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network and to Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. The Al Qaeda contacts allegedly stretch back to 1989, and include regular recruiting visits by bin Laden cadres to Kurdish refugee camps in Iran and to northern Iraq, as well as a journey by senior Ansar leaders to meet Al Qaeda chiefs in Kandahar, Afghanistan, in the summer of 2000.
A 20-year veteran of Iraqi intelli- gence alleges the Iraqi government secretly
provided cash and training to Ansar, in a bid to destabilize the "safe haven" and weaken armed Kurdish opponents. Any link between Baghdad and Al Qaeda could be used by Washington to help justify toppling Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
Some Kurdish politicians downplay the threat from Ansar al-Islam, and senior Islamic leaders claim to have convinced Ansar to "change their methods," meaning they won't target and kill Kurds in their fight for a more secular state as they did this past September.
Ansar al-Islam, which means "Soldiers of God," is no more than several hundred strong. But it controls a handful of Iraqi Kurdish villages that abut the border with Iran, on the eastern end of the US-protected Kurdish safe area in northern Iraq.
Page 1 of 5