Until Sept. 11, 2001, the radical Islamic group Ansar al-Islam was considered a local problem. Based in the Kurdish controlled areas of northern Iraq, with a membership of militant fundamentalists determined to impose Islamic rule, the group raised its profile three years ago by blowing up beauty parlors and sloshing acid in the faces of unveiled Kurdish women. Ansar, like Saddam Hussein, is arrayed against the separatist Kurds of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdestan Democratic Party (KDP), whose ragtag forces lie between it and Baghdad. Ansar hates all infidels, but mainly the ones in its neighborhood. "If they could get to Americans, they would spare no effort to do so," says a senior Kurdish intelligence official, "but since they cannot, they are happy to kill us instead."
The group is being touted by Bush Administration officials as a critical link between Saddam and al-Qaeda. Ansar has roughly 500 to 700 members, including several dozen so-called Arab Afghans, ethnic Arabs who trained in alQaeda camps in Afghanistan and fled to Ansar's enclave in Iraq after the fall of the Taliban. Kurds who have escaped the area say the group has set up a Taliban-like regime, under which women are veiled and Islamic law is h* Aonored--or else. According to a former Iraqi intelligence agent imprisoned by Kurdish authorities in northern Iraq, a member of Ansar's ruling council, Abu Wa'el, once worked for Saddam's intelligence agency, though PUK officials cannot confirm the link. But some connection between Ansar and Iraq seems clear.
The group continues to pose a threat to the anti-Baghdad Kurds. Last year Ansar assailants attempted to assassinate the PUK's prime minister in Suleimaniya, leaving five bodyguards dead in a gun battle that coincided with a visit by U.S. officials. Interviewed in prison, the sole surviving attacker said he was working for the glory of Allah and later hanged himself with his black cotton belt. There are indications, however, that Ansar's strength may be waning. The Iranian government last November forced it to move back from the Iranian border, robbing the group of the cover of high mountains there. U.S. and Turkish military officers have investigated the front line and reportedly come away unimpressed. A senior Turkish official dismissed Ansar as a "cult."
A big blow came with the arrest last fall of the group's leader, Mullah Krekar, while he was passing through the Netherlands en route to Norway, where he is applying for asylum. Krekar, a Marxist turned cleric whose real name is Najmuddin Faraj and who fought the Soviets in Afghanistan, flatly denies that his group has ties to al-Qaeda or Saddam. "I never had links with Saddam's family, government, party--not in the past, not now, not inside Iraq or outside," he told the BBC last week in Oslo. Ultimately, Kurdish officials are less impressed with the group's significance than the Americans are. "They're newsworthy," says a senior KDP official. "But they have no importance for the future of Iraq." Or so he hopes. --By Andrew Purvis/Vienna and Joshua Kucera/Erbil. With reporting by Massimo Calabresi/Washington