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SHOWDOWN WITH IRAQ

Key to U.S. Case Denies Iraq-Al Qaeda Link

February 01, 2003|Sebastian Rotella | Times Staff Writer

BRUSSELS — The strangest thing about the strange story of Mullah Krekar, the leader of an Islamic terrorist group operating in the wilds of northern Iraq, is the fact that he remains a free man, living in peaceful Norway.

Krekar, who U.S. leaders charge could be proof of Al Qaeda's alleged links to Saddam Hussein, said Friday that he would be upset but not surprised if Secretary of State Colin L. Powell names him next week during a much-anticipated U.N. presentation of the case against Iraq.

"I can say to you that this is not true that I am a link between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda," Krekar, 47, said during a telephone interview from Oslo, the Norwegian capital. "I will wait until Wednesday, and if Powell says anything against me, I can use documents to prove it is not true. Everything: that we have chemical bombs, [ties to] Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, all of those things."

Although some counter-terrorism officials in the U.S. and Europe doubt that connections between Al Qaeda and the Iraqi president exist, U.S. authorities call Krekar a dangerous man. Moreover, Jordan wants to extradite him on drug trafficking charges. The Dutch locked him up for four months, then deported him to Norway, where he has refugee status. Norwegian police have spent days questioning him about alleged asylum fraud and terror activity related to his leadership of Ansar al-Islam, an armed Kurdish group.

"The U.S. has an interest in making sure people associated with terrorism can't facilitate terrorist acts," said a spokesman at the U.S. Embassy in Oslo. "We believe he is linked to terrorism generally and Al Qaeda specifically. We hope Norway will take some action regarding him."

Although the FBI has interviewed Krekar twice, U.S. officials acknowledge that they are not able to charge him with a crime or to request his extradition. The Norwegians and the Dutch say they don't have enough evidence to hold him.

That is the best defense, Krekar declares triumphantly, against anyone using him to argue that a war on Iraq would also be a war on terrorism. He challenges the Bush administration to grant him a visa so he can plead his case.

"I said to the FBI, 'I can come to America and prove it's not true in your court,' " said Krekar, who studied Islamic theology with a founder of Al Qaeda and has publicly praised Bin Laden. "I am not an enemy of America. Not Powell, but Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz want to push George Bush to war," he added, referring to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz.

Rhetoric aside, Krekar is not the only notorious Islamic leader to elude arrest in Europe despite plenty of suspicion and effort in a number of countries. As his case shows, the global nature of Islamic extremism often combines with Europe's patchwork of conflicting justice systems and immigration policies to frustrate counter-terrorism investigators.

The debate about Iraq has thrown a divisive new element into the mix: the high-stakes politics of a world on the edge of war. Krekar accuses the United States of leaning on smaller countries to do its dirty work.

"I told the Norwegians, 'Don't let America touch me with your hand,' " Krekar said.

Krekar's odyssey has been confused and occasionally goofy. To the dismay of U.S. officials, the Dutch deported him last month thinking that Norwegian police would arrest him on the spot, according to knowledgeable officials. But nobody met the Dutch police who walked Krekar off the plane Jan. 13; Norwegian police saw no reason to arrest him.

The mullah walked free.

Krekar's real name is Faraj Ahmad. The shaggy, bearded cleric claims to be the author of 30 books, including volumes of poetry, and says he became the leader of Ansar al-Islam in December 2001. Officials in Kurd-controlled northern Iraq call him a vicious terrorist whose Islamic marauders have imposed Taliban-style living conditions in the area they control and massacred Kurdish rivals.

Last year, Krekar traveled from Amsterdam, where he has relatives, to Iran. Authorities there arrested him and expelled him to the Netherlands. Dutch prosecutors held him based on a Jordanian extradition request for heroin trafficking, a charge he denies.

Shortly after the arrest, U.S. Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft expressed great interest in the case during a meeting with Dutch Justice Minister Piet Donner, according to Donner. Jordan has no extradition treaty with the Netherlands, but two countries may extradite drug suspects under a U.N. treaty.

Krekar's lawyers say they suspect that the U.S. and Jordan orchestrated the drug case in the hope that Krekar would end up in the hands of Jordanian intelligence agents. As part of a practice known as "rendering," the U.S. has steered suspected terrorists to Middle Eastern allies whose security services have reputations for harsh interrogation techniques.

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