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Suicide Carbombing Blamed on Ansar al-Islam

On 22 March, an Australian cameraman on assignment for the Australian Broadcasting Corp. was killed in a suicide car bombing in northern Iraq. Paul Moran, 39, was winding up a day’s photography at a junction in Sayed Sadiq outside the village of Khurmal. The area had been the scene of heavy fighting between independent Kurdish forces and fighters of the Ansar al-Islam militant group. As he was photographing a group of fighters running toward the base at Khurmal, a taxi pulled up beside him and detonated.

Moran died instantly, and as many as nine other people were wounded. There were unconfirmed accounts that at least one other person was killed in the bombing. ABC correspondent Eric Campbell, who suffered minor shrapnel wounds in the blast, gave a first-hand account of the incident.

“We were just packing up the car and about to go, Paul was getting one last shot of some peshmergas [Kurdish fighters] who were running toward the base. He walked about 15 meters in front of me to get this shot and a taxi just screamed up beside him and exploded,” a distraught Campbell told ABC television from Iraq. “We were thrown back, and Paul was dead.”

Officials of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) said they believed the Ansar al-Islam group, linked to Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida network, was responsible for the blast.

A war zone

The area where the attack took place had come under attack by American forces the previous day. Officials of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, allied with the United States, said that the village of Khurmal, a base of the mainstream Komala Islami Kurdistan (Islamic Society of Kurdistan), had been hit by cruise missiles and aerial bombardment by U.S. planes and that about 100 Islamic fighters were killed.

Missiles also targeted positions held by Ansar al-Islam, a radical Islamic group fighting against the PUK for control of the Kurdish autonomous zone near the Iranian border. Ansar has recently been reinforced by al-Qaida fighters fleeing Afghanistan. There are reports that the group is acting under the auspices of Iraqi elements loyal to Saddam Hussein in order to disrupt the autonomous region.

Last month, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell identified Khurmal as one of the locations where Ansar militants were working on chemical weapons. However, local Kurdish sources insisted that the identification was in error. They expressed fears that  mainstream Islamic groups could also come under fire by the United States when it began military operations in Iraq. Kurdish officials said the strike against Ansar al-Islam was just one more component in a U.S.-led war on terrorism.

U.S. Special Forces troops have reportedly been on the ground in the Kurdish autonomous zone for several months, working closely with special Kurdish units. One of the tasks of this advance force has been the preparation of landing strips to be used by U.S. planes to open a northern front against Iraqi forces. The Pentagon confirming the strikes against al-Ansar militants, and said that “battle damage assessment” information was still coming in.

Ansar al-Islam

Ansar al-Islam, a Sunni militant group allied with al-Qaida is now firmly established in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq – a region outside the direct control of Saddam Hussein. The group has clashed repeatedly over the past six months with forces of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), which controls the eastern part of northern Iraq. Ansar is reputed to be well-armed, well-financed, and determined to stay.

Ansar al-Islam is made up of Iraqi Kurds and an unknown number of foreigners – including Jordanians, Moroccans, Palestinians, and Afghans. Altogether, it has some 700 fighters who have seized areas near the town of Halabja, close to the Iranian border. News reports quote local residents as saying the group imposes its own strict version of Islamic law. It is said to have outlawed beauty salons, burned schools for girls, and murdered some women who have refused to wear head-to-toe coverings.

Links with al-Qaida and Saddam

Members of the group captured in clashes with Kurdish forces have provided compelling evidence that Ansar is being actively supported by al-Qaida. They say the group’s leaders fought in Afghanistan and trained with al-Qaida there and comfirmed that some al-Qaida members fleeing Afghanistan have been secretly brought into Ansar al-Islam’s territory.  Kurdish military sources say that Ansar al-Islam is led by Al-Shafi’i, as an Afghani-Arab, believed to be of Egyptian or Syrian origin.

“Kurdistan Newsline” on 19 September 2001 said that the Ansar al-Islam had received $600,000 from the bin Laden’s terrorist network to finance their campaign against the PUK.  Contacts with al-Qaida allegedly stretch back to 1989 and include regular recruiting visits by bin Laden cadres to Kurdish refugee camps in Iran and to northern Iraq, as well as a journey by senior Ansar leaders to meet al-Qaida chiefs in Kandahar, Afghanistan, in the summer of 2000.

According to a report in the Christian Science Monitor, new details on Ansar al-Islam’s connections with al-Qaida were provided by the interrogation of Rafid Ibrahim Fatah, an Iraqi Arab currently held by the PUK. Fatah was interviewed by the magazine’s reporter at a PUK security complex in Sulaymaniyah. He said that the group had received money once from Abu Qatada, a London cleric linked to bin Ladin’s European network. He also reported that an Ansar delegation had met with Mohammed Atef, alias Abu Hafas al-Masri, bin Ladin’s military chief, but that bin Ladin rarely met personally with such groups.

The PUK claims that Ansar al-Islam also has ties to agents of Saddam Hussein operating in northern Iraq. The CSMonitor quoted a long-time veteran of Iraqi intelligence as saying that the Iraqi government secretly provided cash and training to Ansar, in a bid to destabilize the “safe haven” and weaken armed Kurdish opponents:

Qassem Hussein Mohamed, who says he worked for Baghdad’s Mukhabarat intelligence for two decades, says that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has clandestinely supported Ansar al-Islam for several years. “[Ansar] and Al Qaeda groups were trained by graduates of the Mukhabarat’s School 999 — military intelligence,” says Mr. Mohamed, in the Sulaymaniyah interrogation room. Kurdish investigators say they are convinced — based on other, confirmable parts of his story — that he is a Mukhabarat agent. “My information is that the Iraqi government was directly supporting [Al Qaeda] with weapons and explosives,” he says. “[Ansar] was part of Al Qaeda, and given support with training and money.”

Qassem Mohamed compared Baghdad’s role to the overt help Iraq gives the anti-Iran Mujahideen e-Khalq forces, which are known to be completely controlled by Iraqi intelligence within Iraq’s borders.  Several of the group’s leaders, he says, were on the Iraqi intelligence payroll, and served as liaisons between Baghdad and al-Qaida.

Observers point out that Saddam Hussein has a history of supporting proxy groups as a way to undermine his enemies. Supporting Ansar may provide him with a way to deal with his Kurdish enemies at very little cost to his own forces.  “The government does not like this ‘safe haven,’ and wants to destroy and destabilize everyone, everywhere,” Mohamed says. “They are using [Ansar] as a base to destabilize northern Iraq, and assassinate and kill people. Baghdad will never give up supporting them.”

Thus, Ansar al-Islam is able to burn the candle at both ends, taking money and resources from the secular dictator Saddam in exchange for help against the Kurds of northern Iraq, while at the same time giving safe-haven to al-Qaida fighter in furtherance of the global Islamic Jihad.

Non-conventional weapons

Ansar al-Islam became front-page news last August, when reports surfaced that the group was experimenting with poison gas and toxins. According a report by ABC News, the experiments were ordered and financed by a “senior al-Qaida official, who was providing money and guidance from elsewhere in the region.”

Most of the experiments reportedly dealt with ricin, a deadly toxin derived from the castor bean. According to the report, members of Ansar al-Islam tested ricin water, as a powder, and as an aerosol. “They used it to kill donkeys, chickens and at one point allegedly exposed a man in an Iraqi market. They then followed him home and watched him die several days later, sources said.”

President Bush was said to have called off a planned a covert raid into northern Iraq against a non-conventional weapons lab used by the group.  The administration reportedly concluded that the Ansar al-Islam chemical facility was not a significant enough threat to warrant a risky military operation.

Now, with American troops already on the ground in Iraq, that assessment is no longer valid. U.S. war planners have apparently concluded that, non-conventional weapons or not, Ansar al-Islam has become enough of a threat to warrant military intervention.