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Routed During the War, Ansar Returns to Join in Iraq Attacks

September 03, 2003|Jeffrey Fleishman | Times Staff Writer

QALAT DIZAH, Iraq — The men carried dollars, euros, a flashlight and five fake Italian passports. They descended the dry, brown mountains, following twisted paths past campfires of nomads and shepherds, and slipped into town in July. People in this part of northern Iraq are especially wary of strangers; the police were summoned and the four men surrendered in the marketplace.

The men -- two Kurds, a Palestinian and a Tunisian -- are guerrillas in Ansar al Islam, according to local security officials. Blending in with religious pilgrims and traveling on smuggling routes, the men were bound for central and southern Iraq, where the U.S. says Islamic militants and Saddam Hussein loyalists are staging attacks on civilians and killing American soldiers.

U.S. officials say that Ansar, the Al Qaeda-linked militant group that was chased from its bases in the north in the first weeks of the Iraq war, is regrouping and spreading across the nation, becoming one of the parties responsible for the wave of terror against Americans and their allies. The violence is believed to be the work of insurgent cells that include former members of the Baathist regime and nationalists resisting occupation.

"A lot of [Ansar guerrillas] are in Baghdad," U.S. civilian administrator L. Paul Bremer III recently told reporters. "If Ansar decides to move, they'll move big."

Some local authorities dispute the belief that Ansar has the sophistication, tactics and manpower to orchestrate a countrywide terrorist campaign. About 250 of Ansar's estimated 700 fighters were killed in attacks by U.S. and Kurdish forces in the spring, officials said. Its mountain strongholds were destroyed and its weapons caches, manuals and bombs seized. Hundreds of its members escaped into Iran or hid along the Iraqi-Iranian border. Its leaders, some of them wounded, vanished.

But there is little doubt that Ansar has recalibrated its mission since March and is now a small but lethal threat to Western targets. American officials often make little distinction between Ansar and the Al Qaeda terrorist network. The groups have similar goals and a history of cooperation, and the characterization fits U.S. thinking about the increasing influence of foreign extremists in Iraq.

Some Ansar guerrillas, including three killed by police last week in northern Iraq, are attempting to join other Muslim extremists in operations against the U.S.-led coalition forces, according to Kurdish intelligence.

"There is a link between Ansar and some of what's happening in the south of Iraq," said Mohammed Haji Mahmud, the chief of a northern Iraqi socialist party that earlier this year negotiated the surrender of 26 Ansar fighters. "But not to the level being reported in the international media. Ansar cannot operate to that extent. They don't know the terrain in the south."

The Bush administration had alleged that Ansar was running a "poison factory" capable of producing chemicals for terrorist attacks throughout the region and in Europe. Washington also asserted that Ansar provided a link between Al Qaeda and the Hussein regime.

Those characterizations, which helped make Washington's case for war, were disputed by some European intelligence agencies.

The "poison factory" lacked sophistication and was housed in a small cinderblock building bearing brown granules and ammonia-like scents. Tests by U.S. laboratories revealed traces of chemicals including hydrogen cyanide and potassium cyanide, substances usually used to kill rodents.

So far, no significant evidence has emerged that Ansar and Al Qaeda cooperated with the Hussein regime to launch terrorist attacks against Western targets.

Deciphering the extent of Ansar's role in terrorism in Iraq is tricky in a region infused with rumors, murky intelligence, hidden agendas and overlapping political interests.

The case of one spy in northern Iraq illustrates the problem. He worked for the local socialist party and was passing on intelligence to Iran and indirectly to the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK, which controls the eastern portion of northern Iraq. The PUK in turn supplied intelligence to the United States. The Socialist Party recently discovered that the spy also worked for Hussein's Baath Party.

Ansar was formed from the merger of several Kurdish militant sects operating in the mountains along the Iraqi-Iranian border. During the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan in 2001, between 50 and 100 mostly Arab Al Qaeda fighters fled to Ansar camps for sanctuary.

Ansar quickly became an Osama bin Laden surrogate as its leaders modeled the group's training and tactics, religious philosophy and instruction for potential suicide bombers after Al Qaeda. Ansar grew more rigid, and its Kurdish members were influenced by the Arab contingents arriving from Afghanistan.

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