HALABJA, NORTHERN IRAQ – A radical Islamist group – with possible links to Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein – is growing and threatening the stability of the Kurdish region in northern Iraq.
The group – Ansar al-Islam – emerged just days before the Sept. 11 attacks on the US. It delivered a fatwa, or manifesto, to the citizens in mountain villages against "the blasphemous secularist, political, social, and cultural" society there, according to Kurdish party leaders.
Since, Ansar al-Islam has nearly doubled in size to 700, including Iraqis, Jordanians, Moroccans, Palestinians, and Afghans – a composition similar to the multinational Al Qaeda network. Villagers here claim it has ransacked and razed beauty salons, burned schools for girls, and murdered women in the streets for refusing to wear the burqa. It has seized a Taliban-style enclave of 4,000 civilians and several villages near the Iran border.
With the US dedicated to rooting out Al Qaeda's influence wherever it surfaces in the world, a group of Islamic extremists in northern Iraq with even loose ties to Al Qaeda could complicate further any Iraq intervention. Already the US is in a delicate dance with allies over how to handle Iraq, with many warning that the US must consider the implications of possible instability that a move to topple Hussein could cause.
The emergence of the group comes as the US ramps up pressure on the Hussein regime in Iraq over weapons development. In a White House press conference on Wednesday, President Bush said Hussein "is a problem, and we're going to deal with him."
The State Department did not have extensive information on Ansar al-Islam, but one official there said he was aware of its existence and connection to Al Qaeda.
The US has longtime ties to Iraq's Kurdish opposition groups, and would have to gauge how those groups – which inspire varying levels of confidence among key US officials – might want to exploit or downplay the existence of groups with ties to bin Laden in their midst.
Ansar is challenging the two main Kurdish political factions – the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) – in northern Iraq.
But the PUK and KDP – which have spent much of the past 11 years fighting among themselves for control of northern Iraq – say they have united against this common enemy.
"[Ansar] al-Islam is a kind of Taliban," says PUK leader Jalal Talibani. "They are terrorists who have declared war against all Kurdish political parties. We gave them a chance to change their ways ... and end their terrorist acts. But if we can't do it through dialogue, we are obliged to use force."
Kurdish fighters, known as peshmerga, now patrol the road between Iraqi Kurdistan's southern city of Sulaymaniyah and Halabja.
On Sept. 23, Kurds here say, guerrillas ambushed a PUK unit and killed 42 soldiers. The ambush came after negotiations between the PUK and Ansar al-Islam, offering amnesty in return for peace, failed to end their activities.
Since the Sept. 23 ambush, peshmerga have pushed Ansar al-Islam back toward the Iranian border where they retain a stronghold in the town of Biara and surrounding villages.
"We have captured two of [Ansar's] bases and found the walls covered with poems and graffiti praising bin Laden and the Sept. 11 attacks on the US," says Mustapha Saed Qada, a PUK commander. "In one, there is a picture of the twin towers with a drawing of bin Laden standing on the top holding a Kalashnikov rifle in one hand and a knife in the other." He adds that the group has received $600,000 from the bin Laden network, and a delivery of weapons and Toyota landcruisers.
In an interview with the Kurdish newspaper Hawlati, the group's leader, Mala Kreker, declared bin Laden the "crown on the head of the Islamic nation."
Kurdish military sources say that Ansar al-Islam's Mr. Kreker is a former member of a Kurdish Islamic party who joined Ansar al-Islam after its formation in September. Kreker replaced Abu Abdullah Shafae – an Iraqi Kurd who trained with Al Qaeda in Afghanistan for 10 years – and changed his name from Warya Holery. Mr. Shafae is now Ansar al-Islam's deputy.
Another of the group's leaders, Abu Abdul Rahman – who, the Kurds claim, was sent to northern Iraq by bin Laden – was killed in fighting in October.
Commander Qada also claims that Ansar al-Islam has ties to agents of Saddam Hussein operating in northern Iraq. "We have picked up conversations on our radios between Iraqis and [Ansar] al-Islam," he says from his military base in Halabja. "I believe that Iraq is also funding [Ansar] al-Islam. There are no hard facts as yet, but I believe that under the table they are supporting them because it will cause further instability for the Kurds."
Barhim Salih, a PUK leader, says a second group affiliated with Ansar al-Islam is working from the Baghdad-controlled city of Mosul.
The Kurdish sources say Hussein's involvement in any mission to destabilize their autonomous ministate would not surprise them. Since 1991, Baghdad has been unable to control the north, because of the no-fly zone created by the US and England and enforced by the US military from a base in Turkey.
Still, in November, Hussein warned that he would "cut out the tongues" of any Kurds who defied him. This month he told the Kurds not to be "deceived" by "the foreigner." But he added: "I do not want anyone to be under the illusion that this leadership is calling for dialogue because it is under futile threats."
Since Sept. 11, Qada says the Iraqi Army has doubled its troops stationed on the border between government-controlled Iraq and the area the Kurds control. It is a clear sign, Qada says, that Hussein will attack them if the US threatens his regime.
Attempts by the PUK to renew negotiations with the group during the past month have failed, and Kurdish sources say Ansar al-Islam is preparing to fight back.
Kurd party leaders say some 2,000 Kurdish soldiers stationed high in the mountains of northern Iraq, near the Kurdish city of Halabja, are trading mortar fire with Ansar al-Islam. Both sides have suffered casualties. "We have to treat them seriously, because they are treating us seriously," Mr. Salih says, adding that the US is aware of the Kurdish struggle with Al Qaeda.
• Howard LaFranchi in Washington contributed to this report.