- The Washington Times - Monday, July 11, 2005

SULAYMANIYAH, Iraq — A series of suicide bombings in previously peaceful northern Iraq has aroused suspicions that elements of the Iranian regime are backing efforts to destabilize the region.

At least 85 persons have died and hundreds have been injured in three attacks over the past two months. An attack that killed the security chief and four others in the northeastern town of Halabja in June was the first of its kind in Sulaymaniyah province since the fall of Baghdad.

Hours earlier, an explosion killed 20 military recruits in the Kurdish capital of Irbil.

A man calling himself Molla Abbas took responsibility for both attacks. “Our campaign will escalate,” he said in a phone call to the independent Kurdish weekly Hawlati.

The name is familiar to Kurdish intelligence officials. Abbas was a senior member of Ansar al-Islam, an al Qaeda-linked Kurdish group that controlled the mountains around Halabja until March 2003, when it was scattered by a joint U.S.-Kurdish operation.

Abbas now is thought to be based in Kirkuk. What worries Kurdish officials, though, is that many of his former colleagues are living untroubled on the other side of the Iranian border.

“Ansar is now based in Iran,” said one senior Kurdish intelligence officer. The attacks “could not have happened without Iranian support.”

The concern that Iran is meddling in Iraq is as widespread among Iraqis as it is in the Pentagon. The International Crisis Group (ICG), a Brussels-based policy institute, treated the charges with skepticism in a March report, “Iran in Iraq.”

Despite official Iranian denials, ICG concluded that Kurdish assertions about Ansar “most likely have merit.”

For Iraqi Kurdish journalist Jemal Penjweni, who last visited Iranian Kurdistan two months ago, the charges are incontrovertible.

For at least the past eight months, he said, Ansar escapees from Iraq have been hosted in two former refugee camps near the Iranian town of Mariwan.

“Their numbers have increased thanks to proselytization campaigns in the [Iranian Kurdish] cities of Mahabad and Saqqiz,” he said.

With anti-Americanism widespread among Iranian Kurds, he said, “new recruits see Ansar as a means of fighting both coalition forces and the quisling Iraqis collaborating with them.”

The authors of the ICG report suggested that Shi’ite Iranian support of the Shi’ite-hating Ansar might be an act of retaliation: Iraqi Kurdish parties have long harbored two Kurdish Iranian opposition groups.

Others put down the apparent contradiction to Iranian fears that Iraq’s experiment in Kurdish federalism could incite its own disgruntled Kurdish minority. It is no coincidence, they say, that the June 20 attacks came five days after Massoud Barzani was sworn in as federal Iraqi Kurdistan’s first president.

“None of our neighbors approve of what is happening here,” said Ezzedin Berwari, a senior politician in Sulaymaniyah. “None wish us success.”

For Shwan Mohamed, political editor of Hawlati, the real turning point in Iran’s use of Ansar came with the formation of Iraq’s new government.

“Before then, Tehran was keen to see the Kurds cooperate with the [Iraqi] Shi’ite parties,” he said. “Now that the Shi’ites are on top, Iran is doing its best to weaken the Kurdish wing in parliament. Bomb attacks up here are an ideal distraction.”

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