The Globe & Mail 03/21/03
Sulaimaniyah, Northern Iraq — American forces bombed the militant Islam organization Ansar al-Islam in the mountains of northern Iraq Friday night.
The attack occurred shortly before midnight local time.
The Ansar territory in northern Iraq is at best 20 kilometres wide, abutting the border with Iran with 18 villages under militant control. But in those redoubts, 700 hard-core fighters remain, including some from Jordan, Iran and Afghanistan, who have let the people of Ahmedawa know they are ready to fight to the end. The group, which U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell linked to al-Qaeda, has laid minefields and recently dispatched a suicide bomber into neighbouring communities, local officials say.
In the broad, grassy Halabja plain below troops from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan had been massing for an attack.
The Kurds had been saying that they were promised an American airstrike for a long time.
Ansar al-Islam, or Supporters of Islam, was formed in 2001 out of several Islamist splinter groups, at least one of which was talking to al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. In the small corner of Kurdistan still under its control, the group has established a harsh regime that has been compared to the Taliban, with bans on dancing, unveiled women and clean-shaven men.
When Ansar took two hilltops and killed dozens of Kurdish fighters in December, the PUK requested U.S. help to fight them. The Bush administration believes the organization has close ties to al-Qaeda.
In his presentation to the United Nations Security Council on Feb. 14, Mr. Powell accused Ansar of building a chemical-weapons factory in the mountains.
Ansar’s own Web site (http://www.ansarislam.com) explains how it trains troops in techniques such as suicide bombing and assassination, but the United States has made no evidence public to support the chemical-weapons charge, nor has the link to Mr. Hussein been fleshed out.
“This is a region outside Baghdad’s control and we see no evidence that Ansar has a strategic alliance with Saddam Hussein,” Robert Malley, director of the International Crisis Group’s Middle East program, said in a recent report on the group. “It is highly unlikely that Ansar al-Islam is anything more than a minor irritant in local Kurdish politics.”