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The rise and fall of Ansar al-Islam

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While most estimates cap the number of new foreign fighters that have entered Iraq in the past six months at 1,000, CIA assessments reportedly put the number as high as 3,000. Only a small minority are believed to be tied to Al Qaeda.

In the shadowy world of northern Iraq that clouds fact and fiction, several recent incidents may have Ansar fingerprints:

• Defense officials said Tuesday that in the northern city of Mosul, they captured ranking Ansar leader Aso Hawleri, according to the Associated Press. Kurdish intelligence agents say Mr. Hawleri was one of four Ansar chiefs deployed in early August to set up new networks. Other leaders may have dispersed to Baghdad, hotbed Fallujah, and the southern Shiite city of Najaf.

• A car bomb targeted a US intelligence house in Arbil a month ago, wounding four US military intelligence officers.

• Kurdish security arrested five Ansar-linked militants crossing into Iraq last July: one Tunisian, a Palestinian and three Kurds, who were carrying five fake Italian passports.

• Three Ansar guerrillas - including Afghan-trained Mullah Namou, a senior Ansar figure - were killed in a late August firefight, after reportedly planning to target an internet cafe frequented by US troops.

• Earlier that month, US forces arrested six people in Baghdad they said were Ansar financiers.

Emblematic of the mysterious history and inner workings of Ansar is the experience of holy warriors like Gharib and two others, who were made available at the Monitor's request by the PUK. Questioned separately for more than 13 hours, the former Ansar guerrillas appeared to speak freely. Proud of their handiwork, they also stated their view that Ansar was finished as an organization.

None of the former Ansar members remembers ever seeing or even hearing that Jordan-born Abu Musab Zarqawi was in Sargat, or anywhere else in the small Ansar enclave. Washington accused Mr. Zarqawi - whose leg was amputated in a Baghdad clinic in 2002 - of being Iraq's prewar link with terrorism.

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