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Jihad offered escape, but not sanctuary

A young Iraqi seeking a new life joins an extremist group. His rocky path leads him deeper into despair.

March 18, 2007|Borzou Daragahi | Times Staff Writer

HALABJA, IRAQ — The young blacksmith with an easy laugh and the looks of a Kurdish Sean Penn wasn't particularly devout or angry at the West. He didn't aspire to "martyrdom." But five years ago, Karzan Rasool made a decision that haunts him still: He became a holy warrior in the army of Islam.

He joined Ansar al Islam, an extremist group with links to Al Qaeda, almost on a whim. Unlike true believers, he just wanted an escape from his desperate life.

"I didn't have any clear goal by going and joining them," the 24-year-old said during an afternoon of conversation and watermelon in this Kurdish border town, offering a rare peek into the capacities and organizational skills of one Sunni insurgent group operating in Iraq. "I wanted to go away from town and everybody there. I wanted to join a group from which there was no return."

He mastered the AK-47 and the art of insurgency. He set out on patrols with his comrades. After a few months, he fancied himself a mujahid.

But instead of escaping his demons, he wound up being consumed by them, an improbable holy warrior pushed to the brink of taking his own life.

Seeking an embrace

It was a rainy day in early spring when Rasool took a taxi to the checkpoint leading to the camp of Ansar al Islam.

By all accounts, Rasool had been a gifted youngster, a mischievous boy who was a whiz with machinery and tools. He and his family fled to Iran during the final years of Saddam Hussein's Anfal campaign, a military operation meant to stamp out the Kurdish insurgency in the north.

But when Rasool's father died, Iranian authorities deported the 19-year-old back to Iraq, where he ended up with an abusive uncle. He was regularly beaten, he and relatives said, and he wanted to run away.

As Rasool approached the checkpoint that day in April 2002, he said, the only thing he wanted was to be embraced by someone.

"I had heard about them, stories from the men in the market," he said. "I had heard they were violent. But I didn't care. I was tired of the kind of life I was living at the time."

Ansar al Islam's followers, holed up in the mountains along the border with Iran, subscribed to the extremist strain of Islam that drives Osama bin Laden. Their scattered remnants have fused with other insurgent groups now operating in Iraq, especially Ansar al Sunna.

Former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell described the group as an Al Qaeda affiliate that bolstered its ranks with veterans of the Afghan jihad, or "holy war," against the Soviets and possible operatives close to Bin Laden.

For months, the group had been fighting a war of attrition against the secular Kurdish government in the north.

At the checkpoint, Rasool was ordered to get out of the taxi. He slowly stepped out. The driver pulled away.

"I told them frankly I had come to join Ansar," he said.

He was interrogated.

What's your name? Where are you from? Which town? Anyone in your family belong to any political parties? Who else do you know in Ansar? Who told you to come here?

He said he was born in the village of Derasheesh. A man from Derasheesh confirmed his identity. They let him stay in the Ansar al Islam stronghold of Biyare for a week. He ate and slept with the fighters, getting to know their ideas and personalities.

"The majority of them knew what they were doing," Rasool said. "Everybody had a reason for being there. I wanted to get away from town and from everybody. Some wanted to do jihad."

Over the course of about six weeks, he was taught various combat techniques: how to patrol, how to ambush, how to retreat and how to defend in hand-to-hand combat. He was taught how to clean, care for, load and fire his AK-47.

Each day, he said, three or four young men would arrive, each asking to join Ansar al Islam. Some had been sent by clerics. Others came of their own volition.

Part of the team

The new recruits made Rasool feel good about his decision. He began to get a sense of the organization's size and strength. There were eight battalions, he said, each consisting of 30 to 150 men divided into three or four companies.

Though he ostensibly was in a militant Islamist group, Rasool said, there was never any religious indoctrination, just the rigors of military life. The men were arrayed in small posts, protecting their turf against the forces of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, one of the two main parties dominating Kurdish life and politics in the semiautonomous Kurdish region.

"All they said was, 'We have to liberate the land,' " he said.

They ate in groups, slurping down stews of okra, tomato and lentil. They received salaries of $30 to $60 a month. They grew long, bushy beards in the style of the Afghan mujahedin.

For the first time in his life, Rasool felt at ease. No longer was he compelled to make hard decisions about himself and his life.

"I was satisfied," he said. "It was easy. I just stayed ready for my orders."

Many of the young recruits would sign up for suicide missions. They were called the "living martyrs," Rasool said.

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