Report from Iraq: War Warnings Spawn Wave of Refugees

Halabja, northern Iraq -- The last straw for Kalthoum Nasradeen, 23, was the dynamite in the sheep pens. She, her husband, and 10 other family members fled territory in northeastern Iraq controlled by Ansar al Islam militants and set up home last week in the nearby city of Halabja.

Most Iraqi Kurds practice a moderate brand of Sunni Islam, but the Ansar fighters, half of whom are said to be "Afghan Arabs" from Afghanistan, have imposed Talibanesque restrictions on 30 villages in the mountains above Halabja. In one of these, Nasradeen's husband had been arrested and fined 500 dinars (about $60, or several weeks average income here) after she went outside without a face veil.

Later, after her father was accused of being a spy and the family lost 30 sheep in the TNT incident, they decided to leave everything behind and flee for Halabja, a city most famous as the site where Saddam Hussein killed 5,000 people in 1988 in chemical weapons attacks.

"All the people hated Ansar and wanted them to leave," she said.

Along the snowy mountainous border of northeastern Iraq, America's Kurdish allies say the big war is about to begin here. In the last month, some 3,000 villagers fled the hills above Halabja as fighting intensified between the Kurdish pesh merga rebel militia who control the semi-autonomous enclave called Iraqi Kurdistan and oppose Saddam Hussein's regime, and Islamist militants intent on overthrowing them.

The Ansar al-Islam, or "Supporters of Islam," occupying the walnut orchards and sheep pastures along the border between Iraq and Iran were accused by Colin Powell in his Feb. 5 address to the United Nations Security Council of affiliations with both Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein. The group was added to the U.S.'s list of terrorists on Feb. 20, but was not an early target of America's war on terrorism.

That assessment changed as American soldiers prepared to open a northern front in a possible war against Iraq. Ansar's links to Baghdad are tenuous, but its openly declared hatred of the West and violent tactics are certain to cause problems for any U.S. military intervention in the area. Ansar executed its first sucessful suicide attack earlier this month, and Kurdish officials are afraid that some 30 Ansar suicide bombers have fanned out around the north, waiting for a U.S.-led conflict to begin.

The government here, like so many others since Sept. 11, 2001, has much to gain by labeling Ansar as terrorists and suicide bombers. But their fears were partially validated by recent reports of suicide attack brigades organizing south of the internal border which divides Kurdistan from Baghdad-controlled Iraq.

Islamist-inspired militants interviewed by Reuters this week at an Iraqi special forces training camp near Baghdad said they came to battle the infidel Americans and hopefully to become martyrs. It was not clear from the article if they were planning suicide bombings, but the Ansar militants in Iraqi Kurdistan clearly have no qualms about breaking the Islamic prohibition on committing suicide.

An Ansar member killed himself, his SUV taxi driver and two pesh merga soldiers on Feb. 26 just three minutes from the barracks near Halabja where Kurdish forces coordinate their anti-Ansar campaign. Small numbers of American special forces and intelligence agents had been spotted by reporters entering that military headquarters in the weeks before the attack.

With such threats on the northern front, officials of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), who control the eastern half of the Kurdish enclave protected since 1991 by the U.S. no-fly zone, say that the final showdown with Ansar is coming soon and is likely to include American support. "We would like to finish them off before any attack on Baghdad," said Sarbast Mohammad, head of security for Halabja. "We are happy to work with the American army to do so."

Whether that help will arrive remains in question. President Bush's special envoy for Iraqi opposition groups, Zalmay Khalilzad, reportedly promised PUK leader Jalal Talabani in Ankara in early February to help snuff out Ansar with American aerial support as the first salvo of any war. Talabani's aides told the press soon afterwards that U.S. special forces snipers were scouting the valley, and that the PUK was supplying target information to American bombers based in Turkey.

Villagers from the area had already begun their exodus after Powell's speech. It has intensified in recent weeks, as whole villages empty and houses and livestock are abandoned.

The village of Derkon on the border of Ansar territory seems to have been particularly tense. Villagers interviewed in different cities told the same stories, of Ansar creeping down the mountain at night to round up PUK supporters for arrest or summary execution, planting landmines in the corn fields, and dynamite in the animal pens.

The men were forced to grow beards, the women could not leave the house unless their faces were veiled and their hands gloved. Red clothing was forbidden, as was smoking, music, television, and picnics in the mountains -- a favorite Kurdish pastime. "We just arrived this morning. I didn't have time to shave," said Diadi Khalidee, 33, running his hand over a newly grown beard.

He and 21 other members of four families sold their remaining sheep and loaded their belongings onto a tractor and fled to Saaid Saadiq, a town near Halabja. Their clothing still in plastic bags in an unheated front room, they spoke about life after escaping from Ansar. "I thought I was in jail, but now I am free," said Khalidee's wife, Sirwa. She said her brother was executed in 1994 by Islamists who would later form Ansar.

While the refugees flow into Halabja and neighboring towns, the PUK pesh merga, whose name means "Those who face death," continue the fight they began a year and a half ago from the frontlines along the Shinerwe mountains near the border with Iran. On a recent visit, Ansar militants could be seen with the naked eye on the next hill over. Small craters left from mortar rounds pocked the green hillside not far from a monument to the victims of the infamous 1988 poison gas massacre.

"We expect that the American army will come because these people are friends of those who killed many Americans," said Major Hikmat Niamet, a jovial and barrel-chested deputy commander of about 250 pesh merga fighters at that outpost.

The Ansar militants are said to number less than 1,000 men armed only with light weapons -- 120 mm mortars, howitzers, Kalashnikovs and grenades. Once thought to be supported by Iran, their leader was arrested in Tehran and deported to Europe, where he remains a free man in Norway. (Norway recently threatened to expel him.)

Even such a small force could wreak havoc if American troops are stationed at a nearby airbase. In addition to the suicide bombing at the military headquarters near Halabja, Ansar is also responsible for killing a founding leader of the PUK as well as Kurdistan's most prominent Christian leader; an assassination attempt on the PUK Prime Minister; and the deaths of upwards of 100 pesh merga fighters.

Ansar videotapes and postings on their web site showing mutilated bodies -- complete with severed heads and genitals -- attest to their ruthlessness. PUK pesh merga have been burned alive, their bodies lined up along roadsides in warning, and a former policeman had acid dumped on his hands, according to pesh merga eyewitnesses and a recent Human Rights Watch report.

Ansar's precursor, called Jund al Islam, was formed shortly before September 11, 2001. It vowed to wage jihad against the "secular and apostate forces that are waiting for an opportunity to overpower Islam and the Muslims of Kurdistan; and waiting to implement the sinister plans of the Jewish, Christian and all other apostate leaders."

Ansar leader Mullah Krekar, also known as Faraj Ahmad, told the Kurdish newspaper Hawlati before September 11, 2002 that Osama bin Laden was the "jewel in the crown of the Muslim nation." Krekar denies that he or Ansar are affiliated with al Qaeda, or that he is an enemy of America. He took control of the group in December 2001 when the routed Jund al Islam renamed itself Ansar al Islam.

The Ansar frontlines are impenetrable with land mines and dynamite, and so far the Islamist groups to the west and east of Ansar, and Iran to the rear, have not assisted the PUK in uprooting Ansar. The last, and what PUK leaders say is the best, plan for mopping up this terrorist threat in a corner of the northern front remains likely, however.

"If the Americans attack them by air it will easy to get rid of Ansar," said Sheik Jaffar Mustafa, commander of the anti-Ansar campaign.

Gretel C. Kovach is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She reports from Iraq for AlterNet and Pacific News Service.

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