Ansar Threat Continues to Haunt Kurds
Girdi Go, northern Iraq -- In the morning Kurdish soldiers were dancing in their bunkers, singing "Long Live Kurdistan!" as American missiles pounded territory in northern Iraq controlled by the dreaded Ansar al Islam. Many of the Ansar militants trained in Osama bin Laden's camps in Afghanistan and were accused by Colin Powell recently of affiliations with Al Qaeda and Baghdad. The pesh merga soldiers had battled Ansar for a year and a half, trying to uproot this internal threat against the secular Kurdish government. Their cries of joy did not last long, and Ansar's retaliation was swift. By nightfall men were wailing with grief outside a hospital as they carried a stretcher with the fifth fatality from a suicide car bombing.
Kurdish soldiers removed the wounded and dead but left the remains of the suicide bomber to rot on the grass.
The afternoon attack occurred at a country road junction not far from where American Tomahawk missiles had obliterated an Ansar training camp early Saturday morning. The coalition attacks killed about 100 people, Kurdish officials said. The Ansar bombing was less awesome, but frightening in its ruthlessness. Dozens were injured, including women and children, and the dead included a border guard, two Kurdish civilians and an Australian journalist. It was Ansar's second successful suicide bombing, even more vicious than the first. A month earlier an Ansar fighter had killed himself, his taxi driver and two pesh merga soldiers not far from the military headquarters of the anti-Ansar campaign. The terrorists have a frightening learning curve.
Paul Moran, a cameraman for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, was a veteran war reporter and an old hand in Iraqi Kurdistan. He first came to the area in 1996 during a civil war between Kurdish factions, and kept coming back over the years to a land and a people he grew to love.
Moran and his reporting colleague Eric Campbell entered Iraqi Kurdistan from Iran just a few days before the attack. Campbell had reported from Chechnya and Kosovo, but he and Moran were no hot doggers. "We had decided to play it safe this trip, wear the flak jackets all the time. He had a two-month-old baby waiting at home for him, and my son is three months old," Campbell said later that night, shortly before being released from the hospital with superficial wounds.
The villages along the mountainous border with Iran controlled by Ansar and a neighboring Islamic group had begun to empty out weeks earlier. Powell's speech to the Security Council was all these simple people needed to convince them that America was coming soon to destroy the terrorist threat on the northern front. Some villagers were too poor to leave, but when the missiles finally began to fall a little after midnight they too began loading tractor beds with mattresses, kerosene stoves and even the family cow.
With daybreak American bombs followed the initial onslaught of 40 to 50 missiles. Moran was filming the last remaining villagers as they fled down the mountain from the site of the American-assisted showdown with Ansar. He removed his flak jacket to take one last shot when an orange and white taxi screamed down the road and exploded at his side. After a tremendous boom a mushroom cloud erupted in the sky and set nearby buildings on fire. Moran was killed instantly.
Campbell was standing on the road not far from his colleague during the attack. He was shocked but virtually unwounded. "Physically I am fine. My satellite phone was completely melted. I don't know how I survived," he said.
An hour later the sod rooftops still smoldered and automobile parts and piles of the bomber's flesh were strewn in the grass 500 feet in all directions. Moran's charred tripod lay in the ashes next to the shell of the taxi's engine. Jamal Rashid, a Kurdish soldier, walked down the road and picked up a piece of the bomber's scalp by the hair and dangled it in the wind with disgust. "I am a Muslim, but not a suicide bomber. Islam does not lead us to do such acts," he said.
A suicide bombing on the road to mountain villages controlled by Ansar al Islam killed an Australian journalist and at least four others.
The suicide bombing fell on a glorious spring day during the Kurdish holiday of Nowruz. Narcissus was blooming in the fields and sun sparkled on the snowy crags in the distance. Soldiers pumped their fists in the air and flashed victory signs, thumbs up and beaming smiles at journalists making their way through numerous checkpoints on a road considered too dangerous for them to travel just days before.
The soldiers were celebrating the beginning of the end for the Ansar militants who had burned their comrades alive, mutilated their bodies and displayed them on their website. In an Ansar video, these self-described warriors for God were laughing, getting down on their knees and thanking Allah for allowing them to vanquish the pesh merga, to cut off their heads and genitals and line their bodies up on the roads in warning.
The Ansar militants' virulent anti-Americanism also posed a threat to coalition forces planning to station in Iraq. A green banner across the road on the way to the frontlines read in English "Welcome British and American alliance," and another said "Americans and British are saving our nation." But by sundown the banners were taken down, a reminder that after night fell not everyone in these lands could be trusted to welcome the western visitors.
In the initial strike on Ansar, munitions stores exploded for two hours after the missiles hit at least 10 sites, said Mustafa Sayid Qadir, assistant military commander for the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, which governs the eastern half of the semi-autonomous Kurdish enclave. The Ansar stronghold of Biyara on the Iranian border was not yet secured, but a 60-foot-wide crater was all that remained of an Ansar training camp in the nearby village of Khormal.
In the days after the suicide bombing more American missiles and bombs rained down on the mountains, and thousands of pesh merga soldiers prepared for a ground invasion. The PUK transferred 4,000 soldiers to the Ansar frontlines to join 2,000 already stationed there, Qadir said. A couple hundred American special forces are also expected to participate in the operation.
But the campaign had been anticipated for weeks, and left plenty of time for the Ansar militants to evacuate and fan out around Kurdistan. Ansar was damaged by the American-led attack, but as with the wider war on terrorism, the threat they pose may only have increased for the short term. Most Kurds practice a moderate form of Islam and were perplexed and horrified by the Ansar's brand of fanaticism. But with a few flicks of a razor even the Arab immigrants among Ansar's forces could easily blend into the Kurdish population.
Paul Moran's death was a tragic reminder that the fight against Islamist extremism on the northern front of a war on Iraq is not as simple as dropping bombs or firing missiles. Ansar is expected to attempt further suicide attacks. And they may not be the only ones.
Ali Bapir, the Islamist leader who controls Khormal village and the lands adjacent to Ansar, had been willing to work with the Kurdish government. He distanced himself from Ansar in recent weeks, fearing the big bombs, Kurdish officials say. But Ali Bapir's top consultant has privately declared his willingness to commit suicide attacks as soon as Bapir gives the word. A western reporter asked him under what conditions that would happen. "If America invades Khormali lands, then we will do whatever is necessary," he said. That invasion has certainly begun.
Gretel C. Kovach is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She reports from Iraq for AlterNet and Pacific News Service.