Iraqi Kurds Fear Return of Islamic Militant Group

Times Staff Writer

Only the bellow of a cow or the occasional rumble of a pickup truck interrupts the serenity of the Kurdish villages of northeastern Iraq.

But a nagging fear lurks here: the possible return of Ansar al Islam, an Islamic extremist group that was driven out of the region two months ago by Kurdish fighters, with the help of U.S. Special Forces and airpower. The State Department says Ansar is associated with Al Qaeda.

In the months since, the group's surviving members have gone into hiding or fled into neighboring Iran, where they are said to be regrouping in small towns near the border.

But in the last three weeks, there have been reports of small groups of Ansar operatives sneaking across the border into the dense forest outside the village of Zelm, a few miles from Sargat.

"Villagers have seen them," said Shaho Mohammed Saeed, provincial commander of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK, which governs northeastern Iraq. "We fear they're coming back to create disturbances."

Intelligence on the nature of the new incursions is not firm, but it has increased anxieties in the villages that were formerly under the group's control, as well as among the security officials in this mountainous corner of the country.

If Ansar regroups, it would further complicate the difficult postwar picture in Iraq. Ansar's alleged links to Al Qaeda have long troubled the United States, which fears that the two groups could collude in the hinterlands along the Iranian-Iraqi border. Signs of an Ansar reemergence in northwestern Iran might also raise fresh questions about Tehran's intentions in Iraq, and worsen tensions between Tehran and Washington over charges that Iran has failed to hunt down Islamic militants. The Bush administration believes that several senior Al Qaeda leaders, including the cell that plotted the May 12 bombings of Western targets in Saudi Arabia, are hiding in Iran. It has demanded that Iran hand them over.

Craters left by U.S. missiles and the graves of Ansar fighters remind residents here of what life was like under the group. Inspired by the Taliban government in Afghanistan, it imposed a severe Islamic code on the villages it used as bases to wage what it called a holy war against the secular Kurdish government in northern Iraq. The group was further radicalized with the arrival last year of members who allegedly had trained in Afghanistan with Al Qaeda.

"Why shouldn't we be worried? The country is still not stable, and we don't know where it's heading," said Jalal Saheb Mohammed, a 53-year-old resident of Sargat, one of the 15 villages in the territory Ansar controlled. "[Militant] groups have come back after being been suppressed before. It could happen again."

He and a group of men sat in the shade across from the village pharmacy, smoking cigarettes -- a practice Ansar had banned in public -- and stiffened upon hearing the group's name. U.S. officials say that on a hilltop above Sargat, a village crossed with vine-shaded alleys, winding streams and pomegranate trees, Ansar members conducted crude experiments with the aim of producing chemical and biological weapons.

Saeed, the provincial commander, believes that Iran is behind the militant group.

"Iran doesn't want to see stability in this region," he said.

PUK officials have proposed joint U.S.-Kurdish security patrols along the Iranian-Iraqi border, and will be discussing the plan today with Maj. Gen. Ray Odierno, the commander of the 4th Infantry Division stationed in northern Iraq. The suggestion reflects a growing impatience with Iran's lack of cooperation in securing the border, PUK officials said.

After the March attack on the Ansar camps, an estimated 200 members fled across the mountainous border into Iranian territory. Some were refused entry by the Iranian government, but others went into hiding in northwestern Iran.

The Iranian government promised to extradite the senior Ansar leaders it detained, but has not handed any over yet.

A senior Kurdish security official said Iran might be using Ansar as a tool in its dealings with the Kurds and the U.S.-led occupation force in Iraq, or that the radical group might be planning attacks on U.S. troops.

"We've explained the consequences of this behavior to Iran much more than once," said the official. "They've consistently denied supporting [Ansar], but if they wanted to they could stop this sort of activity in a day."

In the months leading up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Kurdish officials allied with the United States sought to put a spotlight on the alleged relationship between Ansar and Al Qaeda. The Bush administration focused on allegations of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's ties to Al Qaeda and fears that weapons of mass destruction were being produced in Iraq. The suspected laboratory in Sargat became a central piece of evidence, cited by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell in a presentation to the United Nations.

Political intrigues scarcely matter to the Kurdish villagers of this area, who only want reassurance that Ansar will be permanently kept at bay.

"People are edgy; they think anyone with a beard could be Ansar," said Hassan Karim, a young peshmerga fighter allied with the U.S. from Halabja, one of the towns where Hussein's government used chemical weapons against the Kurds in 1988. "They're afraid the U.S. will abandon them, that Iran will equip Ansar with weapons and push them back in."

For now, residents are struggling to forget the days when Ansar controlled their villages and oppressed daily life through ordinances designed to create the group's idea of a pure Islamic community.

"They imposed themselves, and told us only their version of Islam was right," said Fatima Mohammed, a teacher in Sargat.

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