First of two-parts
DAGA SHERKHAN, Iraq -- In this mountain crease beyond the orchards, a stream meanders past abandoned houses scattered with prayer caps, sunflower seeds, religious scrawling, a ski mask, spent bullet casings and the remote control for a half-finished bomb.
Before U.S. Special Forces and Kurdish fighters overran the region last month, this was the redoubt of Ansar al Islam, the radical Islamic group that the Bush administration alleged was the nexus between al-Qaida and Saddam Hussein, and therefore part of the justification for invading Iraq. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell asserted in February that Ansar was running a "poison factory" and was intent on exporting terrorism from the Middle East through Europe and into the United States.
Many of the guerrillas who lived here are dead now. Others vanished through the white-rock canyons of northern Iraq. They left behind thousands of pages of documents, letters, wills and computer files that reveal the extent of their ambitions -- and call into question the U.S. allegations.
Documents obtained by the Los Angeles Times, along with interviews with U.S. and Kurdish intelligence operatives, indicate the group was partly funded and armed from abroad; was experimenting with chemicals, including toxic agents and a cyanide-based body lotion; and had international aspirations.
But the documents, statements by imprisoned Ansar guerrillas and visits to the group's strongholds before and after the war produced no strong evidence of connections to Baghdad and indicated that Ansar was not a sophisticated terrorist organization. The group was a dedicated, but fledgling, al-Qaida surrogate lacking the capability to muster a serious threat beyond its mountain borders.
The main intent of the group's 700 to 800 guerrillas was to battle the secular U.S.-backed Kurdish government in northern Iraq. Last month, they were swept from their camps in a three-day campaign by 6,000 Kurdish fighters supported by U.S. warplanes and Special Forces. An estimated 250 Ansar members were killed, and 40 to 100 Arabs in the group fled to neighboring Iran and other countries. Under U.S. pressure, Iran denied refuge to 300 other guerrillas, some of whom surrendered to Kurdish authorities. About 200 others are believed to be hiding in caves and villages near Iran.
The documents -- culled from the group's mountain bases and from the bodies of dead fighters -- provide a window into the mind and strategy of militant Islam. One floppy disc, for example, contains 22 files in Arabic relating to military tactics, intelligence and discipline. A 317-page manual -- similar to ones found in al-Qaida camps in Afghanistan -- contains dozens of pages and graphics copied from U.S. Army training texts, as well as details on how to rig booby traps, construct a bomb out of a hairbrush and sabotage airports, bridges and tunnels.
Hundreds of pages of scientific materials include information on mustard gas, the venom of black widow spiders and the risks of tainting mail with biotoxins. One file shows how to concoct "fatal doses" of heroin, which can be given as "Valentine presents" to unsuspecting victims. Other files contain the biography of Osama bin Laden, rambling accounts of Islamic battles throughout history and how to inspire the credo: "Terrify the enemies of Allah."
Written in Arabic and Kurdish, the documents are woven with Koran poetry and dry tabulations, such as the velocity of a Kalashnikov bullet and instructions for operating a 120 mm Russian-made mortar. There are paeans to "martyred" suicide bombers and tips on "seducing" the enemy to provide information.
Ansar was seeking to form its own intelligence-gathering wings with secret contacts and code names. Many of the documents stress how "intelligence on the enemy gives the army victory." The group believes, according to the files, that Muslim organizations must be dedicated to understanding "the nonsleeping eyes" of satellites and information technologies in spying, or in preventing "the nonbeliever" from attacking "those whom God remembers."
Ansar was the commingling of radical groups seeking holy war against the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the PUK, which governs the eastern portion of Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq. One of the group's founding members was Mullah Krekar, who had ties to bin Laden lieutenants in Afghanistan and Pakistan and is now under investigation in Norway.
In the summer of 2001, he led 300 fighters across northern Iraq into the radical Islamic belt near the Iranian border. Krekar merged with another militant group, Jund al Islam, founded nine days before the Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S., and in December 2001 the new Ansar spread through villages.
Its arsenal was formidable, including thousands of rockets, grenades and mortars made in or transported through China, Russia, France, Italy and Iran. Rooms in its military headquarters in Biyara are littered with hundreds of triggering fuses and mines with explosive materials scooped out for other purposes. The group made car bombs with diesel fuel and a C-4-like explosive, and its suicide vests were constructed of canvas, TNT and ignition switches.
Ansar's war against the U.S.-backed PUK was defined by sporadic mortar fire and guerrilla ambushes. The group's biggest victory came last winter when three of its fighters, moving barefoot through the night, sneaked into a PUK hilltop bunker and signaled other Ansar fighters below to attack. The assault killed 43 Kurdish soldiers. Photographs of their mutilated bodies were featured on Ansar's Web site.
The dynamics of the group changed in late 2001 and 2002, when al-Qaida fighters and what one intelligence official described as "professional" terrorists fled the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan and sought sanctuary in the outposts of northern Iraq. Ansar's battle against the PUK widened into a bid for international jihad.
Passports and identity cards retrieved in recent weeks from dead Ansar fighters and from offices in Biyara and other villages show that recruits arrived from Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Qatar, Morocco, Italy, Germany, Canada, Syria and Egypt. Some used several aliases and had residency papers from European countries.
Kurdish intelligence officials assert that Abu Musab Zarqawi, a Jordanian who allegedly masterminded bin Laden's chemical weapons unit, briefly traveled to northern Iraq last year and assisted Ansar in compiling chemical agents, including ricin, a poison derived from castor plant beans that causes respiratory failure.
A senior U.S. official said recently there may be a connection between Ansar and the Algerians arrested last winter in London with ricin. European officials dispute this allegation and, so far, ricin has not been detected at Ansar bases.
Some Western officials are skeptical that Zarqawi visited Ansar, but phone intercepts by Italian and U.S. intelligence suggest that there were elements of his network in Iraqi territory.
Chemicals were certainly part of Ansar's focus.
Sargat, a village tucked beneath a mountain snowline on the Iranian border, was Ansar's crude laboratory until it was hit by nine U.S. cruise missiles. The site had been targeted in February when Powell showed a slide of the compound during his report before the U.N. Security Council.
A recent visit to Sargat revealed no sophisticated equipment, only pungent, ammonia-like scents; white and brown granules wrapped in fist-size bags; beakers; rubber gloves; surgical masks; bags of powdered milk; penicillin and other drugs.
A Special Forces major investigating Ansar said chemicals found at Sargat are being analyzed by U.S. intelligence. Tests have revealed the presence of hydrogen cyanide and potassium cyanide, poisons normally used to kill rodents and other pests. The group, according to Kurdish officials, had been experimenting on animals with a cyanide-laced cream. Several jars of peach body lotion lay at the site beside chemicals and a few empty wooden birdcages. One U.S. official said intelligence teams found large quantities of vitamin B-12, an antidote to cyanide poisoning.
"There's a lot of documentation that shows" intent to manufacture toxic agents, the Special Forces major said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "There's a lot of recipes. ... We found a bunch of mysterious sites."
A senior Defense Department official said: "They know they found potassium cyanide up there. But potassium cyanide has a lot of different uses, and it's not necessarily proof of weapons of mass destruction."
The U.S. is tracing a possible link between Hussein's regime and Ansar, but it has not made a solid connection. Much of the investigation centers on one man, Abu Wael, who joined Ansar in 2001 and, according to U.S. intelligence, was Hussein's secret liaison between Baghdad and Ansar. U.S. officials say that Wael and other Ansar members traveled through Baghdad and met with "high-ranking" government members.
When pressed about a direct tie between Ansar and Baghdad, the Special Forces major said: "It's very difficult to make a crystal-clear link. ... These guys did not take group pictures at their meetings."
The documents and numerous visits to Ansar territory suggest that most Ansar fighters did not ponder geopolitics. They did not spend their time writing treatises. They lived in regimented camps. They dug caves to store mortar shells and Katyusha rockets. Many were young, radical Kurds who knew the secrets of the mountains. They took turns cooking; one Saturday lunch menu was rice and Pepsi. They cleaned guns and followed prayer schedules.
As in Afghanistan, the camps attracted international recruits. Some entered Iran and crossed into northern Iraq only weeks before the U.S. war against Hussein began on March 20. Those who were killed or captured, and some of those who fled, left behind library and medical insurance cards, letters of recommendation, maps and passports.
Majed A.M. Al Sharif, a Saudi national, received an Iranian tourist visa and traveled from Doha, Qatar, to Iran sometime after Jan. 18. Another Saudi national, Loai M.M. Alyaman was in Dubai when he was granted an Iranian visa for a religious pilgrimage on March 11. Other arrivals included a Sudanese naval officer and Muhammed Hisham Hilali, a Tunisian who left a will that read:
"I insist my grave should be flat with the ground. My possessions should be distributed according to Islam. I bequeath my weapons and my bombs to the nearest holy warrior."
Another Ansar warrior, Jasim Ali Hussain, has many aliases. He carried identity cards from Iraq and Iran. He was imprisoned last month after being shot in the leg during a firefight against Kurdish forces. In an interview with two journalists, he gave yet another name and nationality: Ahmed Mohammed Tawil, a Palestinian from Gaza. He said he hates Americans and Jews and enlisted in Ansar to train to kill "the infidels."
"I'll fight against America every way I can," he said. "You can take my point of view to America; I don't mind."
Such fervor permeated life in the 15 villages under Ansar's control. A Taliban-like rigidity set in as Koranic law replaced civil law, and butchers, according to documents, were ordered to repeat "God is the greatest" when slaughtering animals. The bare-shouldered female model on bars of Lux soap was banned from shops, and checkpoint guards were instructed to confiscate as "immoral" any television or compact disc. Picture books supplied by the United Nations to poor villages controlled by Ansar were altered so that girls were veiled and men had beards.
The group insisted that women be veiled and covered. Boys and girls attending the same school was considered a "coeducational problem" that was solved when Ansar's leaders agreed to pay $90 a month for a taxi to drive girls to classes in a neighboring village.
"The woman is exploited by human and fairy devils," stated another Ansar edict, warning against lust and setting the cost of a marriage at $1,000. "This is to weaken the believers and to turn them from the straight direction. ... We don't forget the destructive tools."
Believing holy places should honor only Allah, Ansar fighters dug up crypts in the blue-domed Biyara mosque, removing the bones of 14 holy men belonging to the Naqshbandi Muslim sect. Some Ansar leaders, including Ayub Afghani, a bomb maker, and Hemin Benishari, head of military tactics and assassinations, moved into apartments connected to the mosque, which sits above pomegranate and walnut trees.
The removal of the bones revealed Ansar's kinship with Afghanistan's Taliban government, which was internationally criticized for destroying ancient Buddhist statues it considered graven images against Allah.
In a four-page letter of support for the Taliban, Sheik Abdul Muneem Mustafa, an Ansar sympathizer, wrote that the West "accused the Taliban for breaking the Afghan idols but they are quiet over the killing of thousands of Muslim women, children and old people in Iraq, Chechnya, Kashmir and Bosnia. ...The Taliban is a bad threat to those who support the nonbeliever, America."
Such documents -- many ripped and dirty -- were scattered over Ansar's battered redoubts after U.S. and Kurdish forces attacked the group March 27. Like scrapbooks opened to the wind, hundreds of Ansar photographs also flecked the ruins. They showed bearded guerrillas holding rifles in mountain fog and boys with holes in their sneakers and Kalashnikovs over their shoulders posing bravely in their bandoliers and kaffiyehs.
A boy standing on a muddy road with a bandaged thumb looks out from one picture. The writing on the back says the boy, an Ansar recruit, has volunteered to murder his father, a PUK official. The boy did not kill his father, but he later was arrested in a failed suicide-bombing attempt.
Times staff writers Sebastian Rotella in Cremona, Italy, and Greg Miller in Washington contributed to this report.