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Jihad offered escape, but not sanctuary

Times Staff Writer

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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“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.

“I never reached the point where I would blow myself up,” he said. “But I would have obeyed any other order, like going to the front and fighting.”

But troubles started.

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“I was a little naughty,” he said. “The majority of them were very serious. No joking. No laughing.”

A falling-out ensued. While manning a checkpoint, he was scolded for wearing a pair of Western-style olive-green pants instead of the traditional Kurdish trousers. “I said, ‘If I can’t wear what I want, then I quit,’ ” Rasool said.

Impetuously, he left the Ansar camp and joined a nearby militia called the Islamic Group. He was placed on guard duty. “We do the same thing as Ansar: jihad,” one of the commanders told him. “But we do it more slowly.”

Devastation

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Rasool awoke with a start the evening of March 23, 2003. The explosions were deafening. He grabbed his gun and ran out of the dormitory just as a U.S. Tomahawk missile struck the building. It was the beginning of the Iraq war. At least 43 Islamic Group fighters were killed, including the young man who had relieved Rasool on guard duty minutes earlier.

“I started crying,” he said. “I cried for all I went through. I never cried that much before. I thought I had reached my goal. I was a mujahid.... I was respected.”

He shaved off his beard and went into hiding.

Rasool holed up in an abandoned office of the Islamic Group in downtown Halabja for three months before he slowly began to venture out. Saddam Hussein had been overthrown. The Kurdish region was part of the new Iraq, which in those first few months was a relatively safe place of promise and hope.

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At a CD shop one day, a security official asked Rasool for his identification card. Suspicious, he led him to an office to ask some questions. He inquired flat out whether Rasool was a member of Ansar al Islam. Rasool admitted that he had been. He was tossed into jail for a week.

The authorities didn’t let up. He was arrested twice in the next several years, held one time for 20 days and the other time for 41.

“Any time my name came up, they would arrest me,” he said. “There were some beatings, but nothing very harsh.”

By late 2005, with the insurgency raging, the outlook for Iraq had turned bleaker. On Nov. 1, Rasool was summoned to the main security office in the provincial capital, Sulaymaniya, and placed under arrest.

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“We have information you went to Afghanistan,” he was told.

In a strange prison near the Kurdish town of Qala Chwaran, he was locked in a 3-foot-square cage, he said.

“They lowered you in and covered the top,” he recalled. “The lid would go down and make you crouch.”

There were English-speaking interrogators who Rasool assumes were Americans.

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“They were nice,” he said. “They offered me tea and coffee and Pepsi -- and then suddenly in the middle of the interview pinch my finger with pliers.”

The interrogators wanted to know whether he had trained in Iran and whether he had met Al Qaeda operatives there.

“They kept asking me about Iran,” he said. “They wanted to know the names of intelligence officials supporting Ansar.”

But he was never charged with a crime. “No one said anything about what I had supposedly done,” he said. “There were no lawyers or judges.”

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Kurdish officials denied that the regional government operates such a prison but acknowledged that there could be secret prisons under the control of the intelligence apparatuses of the two main Kurdish parties.

Eventually Rasool was sent to a prison with ordinary prisoners and guards. The International Committee of the Red Cross visited, giving him a set of clean clothes, which he used to try to hang himself.

Hitting bottom

His fluttering feet caught the attention of one of the prison guards. He was half-conscious when they pulled him down.

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“My goal all along was to escape my life,” he said.

He was eventually transferred to a third prison, with even lower security. One day last May, they let him go.

“We’ve done a lot of research,” they told him. “We’ve discovered you’re not the person we’re looking for. We’re not sorry. But you’re free.”

Since his release, Rasool has been striving to pursue an ordinary life, despite the scrutiny of authorities, who continue to keep an eye on him, he said.

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He continues to pray five times a day, but he also listens to Iranian pop music from Los Angeles and considers himself a movie buff. His time as a hard-core warrior for Islam has not transformed him, he said.

“Before joining them I didn’t believe in jihad,” he said. “During the time I was there I did.

“Afterward, I stopped believing.”

daragahi@latimes.com

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