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U.S. Arrests Militant Muslim Leader in North Iraq

Times Staff Writer

Nearly four months after bombing his compound and killing 43 of his armed Islamic followers, U.S. forces acknowledged Monday that they had arrested one of northern Iraq’s most colorful and enigmatic Muslim leaders, a move likely to inflame tensions in a mountainous corridor along the Iranian border.

Handcuffed and blindfolded, Ali Bapir and three members of his Komaly Islami militant group were whisked away Thursday on a U.S. helicopter. The arrest was part of a trap and occurred after Bapir and his men had accepted a U.S. invitation to a meeting at a nearby resort. On Bapir’s way to the hotel, U.S. soldiers stopped his vehicle and took him and his entourage into custody.

Bapir is one of the most charismatic fringe leaders in northern Iraq. In many ways he represents the challenge U.S. forces face in coaxing radical Muslim clerics away from militancy and toward moderate Islam. Bapir has long said he desired a relationship with the West, but his links to Ansar al Islam -- a radical group with ties to Al Qaeda that U.S. forces attacked in the early days of the Iraq war -- often made his overtures suspect.

Bapir and thousands of his followers lived in the village of Khurmal in northern Iraq. Their territory bordered mountains and a scattering of hamlets controlled by their more radical Ansar allies. About 200 Ansar families lived in Khurmal, and many of Ansar’s guerrillas used to take refuge there from battles with the Washington-backed militia controlled by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. Bapir repeatedly denied that his band of armed men -- numbering about 1,000 -- supported Ansar, or that he shared Ansar’s jihad philosophy.

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But the PUK, which gave Bapir hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in hopes his group would abandon its radical tendencies, concluded before the U.S. invasion of Iraq that Komaly Islami was too closely aligned with Ansar. U.S. forces widened the scope of their cruise missile attacks to include several of Bapir’s compounds in the foothills above Khurmal. Bapir surrendered, and days later he and his surviving followers were loaded onto buses and taken to the town of Raniyah.

In an interview after the U.S. attack in March, Bapir, shaken and bitter, said: “I don’t know if the U.S. hit us because we are Islamic. Is that enough of a reason? If there is a reason, the U.S. must tell us. If we have done anything wrong, the U.S. must tell us.... If there is no reason, the U.S. must apologize.”

In several interviews last winter and spring, Bapir, who often walked to Friday prayers surrounded by men bracing Kalashnikov rifles, said he opposed violence and supported the idea of peace with the West. His critics, notably PUK officials, said Bapir attempted to play a wily game in which he extolled peaceful passages in the Koran while behind the scenes supported Ansar.

Also arrested Thursday were three top aides to Bapir and eight others, including bodyguards, drivers and an interpreter. All were traveling in a three-vehicle convoy headed for the supposed engagement with U.S. military officers, according to supporters.

Bapir and his colleagues were flown to an unknown detention site, Komaly Islami officials said. Why the Army arrested Bapir last week and presumably seeks to question him remains unclear. But his organization and its militia -- now largely disarmed, according to the group -- have been on the Pentagon’s radar at least since the beginning of the war against Iraq.

Bapir’s group is one of several small religious parties in the Kurdish region of Iraq that was liberated from Saddam Hussein following the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Factional fighting has divided Kurdistan in half, but the ruling parties are secular and pro-Washington. The various Islamic political parties have comparatively small, focused followings and are not considered a threat to the ruling structure, analysts say.

Spokesmen for Komaly Islami condemned the arrests and called for the immediate release of Bapir and the others. They suggested the detention conflicted with U.S. vows of political pluralism throughout Iraq.

“In this case, America’s deeds are not the same as its words,” said Nazin Abdullah Rasheed, a member of Komaly Islami’s governing council.

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Bapir, in his 40s, earned a reputation as an especially skillful guerrilla warrior against Hussein in the 1980s, when the regime led a fierce crackdown against the Kurds. In a story widely repeated here, Bapir is said to have ordered the execution of his own brother when it was discovered he was an informer for the regime.

Dick Naab, northern region coordinator for the U.S.-led coalition that governs Iraq, reiterated Washington’s stated resolve to help Iraq become a democratic, multiparty nation and praised Kurdistan.

“Kurdistan is a model for the rest of the country,” Naab said here during an interview at a meeting with political figures.

Times staff writer Jeffrey Fleishman in Berlin contributed to this report.

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