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Ansar, Al Qaeda Seen as Working More Closely

Times Staff Writer

The grainy photographs depict a tall, expressionless man in his 20s, standing head and shoulders above the other well-wishers in a reception line at a Kurdistan Democratic Party office.

With each consecutive picture -- taken from video footage of the event -- the man inches closer to party dignitaries, waiting patiently for his turn to shake their hands.

Seconds later, he reaches into his black jacket and detonates a bomb vest stuffed with 9 pounds of C-4 explosives and tiny metal shards, sending a ball of flame and shrapnel into the crowd. The blast killed 57 people, including high-ranking party leaders.

The bombing -- one of two nearly simultaneous suicide attacks here that claimed nearly 110 lives on a major Muslim holiday this month -- bore the hallmarks of Ansar al Islam, an Islamic terrorist group with a history of using bomb vests and striking at holiday celebrations. Investigators believe that the suicide bomber was a Yemeni who was probably dispatched by Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda terrorist network.

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Long suspected of working together to train and hide each other’s militants, Ansar and Al Qaeda in recent months have been taking their cooperation to a deadly new level, coordinating attacks, fanning out across the country and raising new challenges for U.S. and Iraqi security forces, according to interviews with Kurdish and U.S. intelligence officials in Iraq.

“We are seeing a combination of Al Qaeda and Ansar al Islam in Iraq,” said Karim Sinjari, the regional government’s interior minister. “They are one now.”

He said Kurdish intelligence reports suggested that Ansar al Sunna, the group that claimed responsibility for the Feb. 1 attacks in Irbil and the suicide bombing of a police station in Kirkuk this week, was being jointly led by operatives from both Al Qaeda and Ansar al Islam and might be responsible for other recent suicide attacks.

“It’s quite clear in the last three months that we’ve seen a real step-up on the part of these professional terrorists from Al Qaeda and Ansar al Islam conducting suicide attacks,” U.S. civilian administrator L. Paul Bremer III said this week.

Both groups are combining their strengths to produce a lethal new mix, intelligence officials said.

Ansar al Islam, a group that emerged in 2001, is familiar with the Iraqi countryside -- particularly the north -- and uses goat trails, smuggling routes and a network of safe houses to ferry operatives into and around the country. The group’s knowledge of local customs and practices enables it to exploit security vulnerabilities, such as the lax security at the Eid celebrations this month, officials said.

Al Qaeda provides money, equipment and its experience with explosives, officials said. Use of C-4, for example, is an Al Qaeda trademark. Most importantly, they said, Al Qaeda is sending to Iraq a steady supply of young men willing to die in a religious war against the United States.

“They are having to supply the suicide bombers because Iraqis and Kurds are not ready to commit suicide,” said Sarkawt Hasan, director of security in Sulaymaniya, a northern Iraqi city dominated by the KDP’s rival, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. Previous suicide attempts by Ansar al Islam ended in failure when young Kurdish operatives were unable or unwilling to detonate their explosives vests.

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U.S. intelligence officials have long talked about links between Al Qaeda and Ansar al Islam. In building a case for invading Iraq last year, Bush administration officials suggested that the purported relationship was evidence of ties between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein, a claim from which officials have since backed away.

The U.S. recently released a 17-page memo that it said was written by Abu Musab Zarqawi, a Jordanian suspected of planning several suicide bombings in Iraq who has been linked to Al Qaeda and Ansar al Islam. The memo pleads for more assistance, presumably from Al Qaeda, to spark a civil war in Iraq. An alleged Al Qaeda courier, Hassan Ghul, was arrested last month near Sulaymaniya by Kurdish forces, another sign that Al Qaeda might be more active on Ansar’s home turf. Ghul was reportedly carrying the Zarqawi letter.

Ansar al Islam, which has been based in northern Iraq, is moving south, perhaps in an attempt to reach out to former Hussein loyalists and Sunni Muslims, intelligence officials said.

Ansar agents are believed to be operating in central Iraqi cities such as Baghdad, Fallouja, Ramadi and Tikrit, said Othman Haji Mahmoud, interior minister of Sulaymaniya.

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Near Fallouja last month, U.S. Special Forces captured a leading Ansar al Islam figure, Husam Yemeni. Leaders of Ansar al Sunna met in Baghdad in mid-January, shortly before the Irbil attacks, said an intelligence officer with the PUK’s peshmerga militia. And U.S. officials announced this week the arrest of five suspected Ansar al Islam members in Baqubah.

“When you look at the reports of them setting up operations elsewhere, you have to have a concern,” said Lt. Col. Harry J. Schute Jr., battalion commander for U.S. forces in Irbil.

The creep of Ansar al Islam operatives outside northern Iraq raises new challenges for U.S., Iraqi and Kurdish security forces. Although intelligence officials from the three militaries attempt to share information and tips, they operate independently and in distinct geographic regions, officials said.

A lack of secure telephone systems hinders communications. “When we want to get a message to the south, we still have to drive it down with a messenger,” the KDP’s Sinjari said.

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Most officials believe that Ansar al Sunna is merely a fresh name for many of the same players in Ansar al Islam. But they worry that the new name portends a shift in strategy.

Renaming itself Ansar al Sunna, or “Protectors of Sunni,” may be an attempt to reach out to former Baathists and broaden the appeal of Ansar al Islam, which largely has been seen as a Kurdish extremist group bent on destroying the two secular Kurdish parties, one intelligence official said. “It’s a very clear strategy to appeal to different sects,” he said.

Ansar al Islam was born shortly before Sept. 11, 2001. Its founders were hard-line radicals who left various extremist Islamic political parties. The group’s first known strike -- occurring shortly after the attacks in New York and on the Pentagon -- was a massacre of 42 PUK peshmerga soldiers, whose mutilated bodies were photographed and displayed on the Internet.

During the U.S.-led war in Iraq, the PUK received help from U.S. bombers to drive Ansar al Islam from its isolated mountain camps along the Iranian border.

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After the fall of Hussein’s government, Ansar began regrouping in its birthplace of Irbil, where it is still believed to have as many as 50 operatives working in sleeper cells, officials said.

Last month, the group’s co-founder and spiritual leader, Mullah Krekar, was arrested in Norway on charges including conspiracy in the attempted murder of political rivals in northern Iraq. Krekar was released last week by authorities after some witnesses said they were forced to implicate him.

Another top Ansar official, Aso Hawleri, was captured by U.S. forces near Mosul in the fall. With the loss of its leaders, Ansar is turning to Al Qaeda for direction, intelligence officials said.

Ansar al Sunna is being led by Abu Abdullah Hassan bin Massoud. KDP intelligence officials describe him as a Jordanian who is a lieutenant to Bin Laden. He is being assisted by Abdullah Shafi, a longtime Ansar al Islam leader who assumed the group’s leadership after Krekar’s arrest, several intelligence officials said. Shafi trained with Al Qaeda in Afghanistan in the mid-1990s and served in Iraq’s secret intelligence service, Mukhabarat, according to Kurdish intelligence. He is believed to operate from Iran, sending messages to Iraq via the Internet or with couriers.

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U.S. military officials said Ansar al Islam and Al Qaeda operatives had stepped up their activities in recent weeks. Frequent raids in northern cities have netted scores of suspected Ansar supporters, who are filling up jails in Irbil and Sulaymaniya, officials said. Most are picked up at military checkpoints or when they attempt to visit relatives who are under surveillance.

In Irbil last week, KDP forces gave members of the Islamic Group in Kurdistan -- suspected of aiding Ansar members -- 24 hours’ notice to vacate its giant compound, where 43 families were living.

Sitting around a portable heater in a dim bunker at a nearly vacant compound, a handful of remaining party members denied helping Ansar or supporting terrorism.


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