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The rise and fall of Ansar al-Islam

Former members of Ansar al-Islam talk to the Monitor about the militant group's ties to Al Qaeda, the foreign fighters that joined its ranks, and its eventual destruction.

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As the American air attack pulverized the mountain base of Ansar al-Islam last March, Mohamed Gharib let his video camera roll - just as he had done during countless operations of the northern Iraq-based militant group.

"I filmed the missiles falling," says Mr. Gharib, a Kurdish militant and the Ansar media chief. Gharib's footage had for years recorded the violent history of the Al Qaeda-linked fighters, and served as a fundraising tool. "You wouldn't believe if I told you we were happy [to be attacked]. They gave us the sense that we were so true, so right, that even America had to come fight us."

Washington fingered Ansar as a terrorist group experimenting with poisons, and used its tenuous links to Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda to help justify the war against Iraq.

US officials were triumphant last spring, even as the broader Iraq invasion was still underway, after a three-day assault. Gen. Tommy Franks declared that a "massive terrorist facility in northern Iraq" had been "attacked and destroyed" by a joint US-Kurdish operation.

But today US officials assert that Ansar not only survived - like Gharib, who barely escaped after a four-hour bout with a US sniper - but that it is regrouping. They say Ansar is reinfiltrating Iraq with Kurdish and Arab militants from Iran, and, along with Saddam loyalists, is behind an increasing number of anti-US attacks across Iraq.

Lengthy interviews with several Ansar members now in custody, and with officials and intelligence sources of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) in northern Iraq, however, yield a more ambiguous picture.

These sources describe a group now so decimated and demoralized that even true believers admit it is unlikely to be reborn according to its old template.

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