(AP) TUWELLA, Iraq – Beyond the ridge where the Zagros Mountains divide Iran and Iraq, several hundred Islamic militants vanished into the early spring snow.
On the eve of the Iraq war in March, a barrage of U.S. cruise missiles and a sweep by thousands of Kurdish soldiers cleared the fighters of Ansar al-Islam from mountain strongholds of northeast Iraq from where they had plagued the Kurds for years. Now, there are signs that the group, suspected to have links with Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida network, is coming back.
“We are intercepting reports that elements of Ansar al-Islam are becoming active again,” said Barham Salih, prime minister of the eastern sector of the Kurds’ autonomous region in northern Iraq.
The Kurds suggest people in Iran may be training and sheltering Ansar militants and helping them enter Iraq. They cite intelligence that a dozen Ansar activists sneaked into Baghdad in early April, before Saddam Hussein’s capital fell to the U.S. onslaught.
“One day, they can be used to launch operations against the Americans,” said Shaho Mohamad Sayid, a Kurdish leader overseeing the area near the Iranian border where Ansar once operated.
On June 10, a military commander of the town of Kalar, near the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, was killed when he tried to arrest a suspected Ansar militant who set off a suicide bomb.
When asked about Ansar, Col. William Mayville, commander of the U.S. Army’s 173rd Airborne brigade based in Kirkuk, said his men are on the lookout for Islamic militants when patrolling the area.
“There’s always been an understanding that there is the presence of terrorists in every city or village in this country,” he said.
The group included veterans of bin Laden’s training camps in Afghanistan. Secretary of State Colin Powell mentioned Ansar as part of the “sinister nexus” linking Baghdad to al-Qaida when he made his case for war to the U.N. Security Council in February.
Ansar had taken control of a slice of the Kurdish-controlled area near the Iranian border, enforcing a version of Islam only slightly less stringent than the Taliban in Afghanistan: Men had to have untrimmed beards, and women were ordered to cover their heads.
The group carried out suicide bombings, car bombs, assassinations and raids on militiamen and politicians of the secular Kurdish government, killing scores of people over the last two years.
During the war, U.S. special forces troops and Kurdish fighters destroyed an Ansar base and Tomahawk missiles were launched at the group’s positions.
U.S. counterterrorism officials say the group has suffered significant losses but the survivors are still dangerous.
Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, included Ansar among five anti-American groups operating in Iraq.
“There’s this Ansar al-Islam group that’s been in there since before we went in,” he said in a June 14 interview with the Fox Television network. “They’ve been in there for years.”
A June 13 article in Al-Sharq Al-Aswat, a London-based Arab daily, raised the alarm of a possible Ansar return. It reported that Abu Abdullah al-Shafei, an Ansar leader, was calling for guerrilla warfare against the coalition occupation.
In the alleged communique, al-Shafei urged a shift to hit-and-run tactics against the secular Kurdish parties and the Americans, and called on supporters to provide weapons, recruits and money.
Concerns about Ansar al-Islam were fueled by anecdotal intelligence, mostly from informants traveling across the Iranian border, that Ansar is active and regrouping in the Iranian cities of Meriwan, Sina and Marakhel. Ansar leaders were allegedly spotted in the Iranian city of Sandandaj not long ago.
“They’re generally unarmed, moving from place to place without staying anywhere permanently,” said Mehdi Said Ali, Kurdish military commander of the border area.
The Kurds have passed on to the Americans raw intelligence alleging that 20 to 30 Ansar activists had been sent to Tehran for training, and some were being sent to Baghdad for operations against the Americans, Kurdish official Aso Hatem said.
Iran’s Foreign Ministry has denied any links between the largely Shiite Muslim country and the Sunni Muslim radicals that make up both Ansar and al-Qaida. Ansar members frequently harassed Shiite Iraqis as infidels.
Though Ansar individuals and small cells might be able to cross the border, Kurds say they’ll never be able to return in numbers large enough to seize the vast territory they once held.
Now freed from Ansar’s rule, the residents of towns like Biyare, Tuwella and Khormal — 200 miles northeast of Baghdad — vow they’ll never let the Islamic radicals come back.
The men have shaved, the women have relaxed their dress and the shops have begun selling beer. Tourism is returning to the cool mountain canyons.
“Ansar is finished,” said Karwan Jami, 19, of Tuwella. “They’re not frightening to us like they used to be.”