- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 30, 2003

BAGHDAD — Scores of Iraqi-made suicide bombers’ jackets missing since the war that ousted Saddam Hussein have fallen into the hands of the radical extremist group Ansar al-Islam, according to illegal-weapons traders.

Although suicide bombers in Iraq so far have relied mainly on explosives packed in trucks or cars, there have been at least two recent uses of suicide jackets in targeted attacks and security officials fear their use will become more pervasive.

The jackets are especially dangerous in the winter when they can be worn inconspicuously, allowing bombers to approach their targets without arousing suspicion.

The Iraqi station chief of the FBI confirmed that the agency has obtained “more than one” intact suicide bomber’s jacket.

At coalition headquarters, FBI station chief Ed Worthington gave the bureau’s only on-the-record interview in Iraq.

“The FBI, in coordination with the military and other agencies, is highly concerned about any attack. We are just as worried about suicide jackets as we are about improvised explosive devices found alongside roads. The FBI is interested in examining all explosive devices for forensics,” he said.

“We have obtained more than one suicide bomber’s jacket, and we have subjected them to forensic testing,” Mr. Worthington added.

About 220 suicide bombers’ jackets were discovered in Iraq as U.S. forces swept into Baghdad, as was reported in The Washington Times on April 15.

Army Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks, deputy director of operations for the U.S. Central Command, told reporters that about 80 more jackets appeared to have been removed from the elementary school where the main cache was found. They might have ended up in the hands of foreign fighters, he said.

U.S. sources said at the time that each jacket was lined with several pounds of C-4 plastic high explosive laced with ball bearings.

The Washington Times subsequently has uncovered the origins of the jackets and learned how they got into the hands of Ansar al-Islam, a militant Kurdish group linked to the al Qaeda terror network and based along Iraq’s border with Iran.

An arms dealer has told a former Iraqi army officer that 169 working jackets, together with explosives, were sold to the movement, which U.S. officials suspect of involvement in several postwar terror attacks. The price was said to be the equivalent of $470 apiece.

The jackets were made in the months preceding the war on secret orders issued by Saddam Hussein’s son Uday, according to an Iraqi ex-general who was tasked with making fuses for the jackets. He says that he made 500 of them and that they were taken away in a vehicle with markings that read, “Olympic Committee.”

Uday Hussein ran the ministry of sports and the Olympic Committee as a personal fiefdom, but his main military activity was to command the Fedayeen Saddam. These paramilitary forces were trained in guerrilla warfare and were to have been issued the suicide bombers’ jackets during the war.

It appears that some were distributed, and a couple were used in Nasariyah and other cities against advancing U.S. troops. But the bulk of the jackets appeared to have remained in storehouses, and many were removed — either by Saddam loyalists, or, more likely, by opportunistic thieves.

Several since have been found with the explosives removed, suggesting that the robbers did not, at first, appreciate their value. Arms dealers said the explosives were sold cheaply to fishermen.

When a former Iraqi army officer approached an arms dealer last month asking for suicide bombers’ jackets, he was told that Ansar al-Islam had bought up the entire supply, including three that already had been stripped of their explosives.

The officer was advised to send a colleague north and make contact with Ansar al-Islam, which would allocate a fully operational suicide bomber’s jacket to anyone who would use it effectively.

Ansar al-Islam was very active in the north before U.S.-led forces invaded Iraq, employing a number of fighters drawn from nearby Muslim countries by way of Iran. The group had taken control of mountainous land in northeastern Iraq, but fled into new hiding places after American planes bombed its stronghold last spring.

Since then, Kurdish guerrillas and American soldiers have made sporadic efforts to root out remnants of the group.

Ansar al-Islam’s spiritual leader, Mullah Krekar, has described death in suicide bombings as “very, very good.”

The mullah was arrested on March 20 while enjoying refugee status in Norway and was accused of having made several trips to northern Iraq. He later was released and allowed to stay with his wife and elderly mother in an Oslo flat.

Before the war erupted, he told Dutch television that Ansar al-Islam could launch suicide attacks against coalition forces in Iraq.

“Ansar al-Islam is an extremely dangerous organization, and we’re helping the coalition get them,” Jalal Talabani, the Kurdish leader and Iraqi Governing Council member, told The Washington Times in Paris recently. “We have arrested three of its senior mullahs who were planning suicide bombings.”

Krekar denies links with Abu Musaab Zarqawi — a Jordanian with ties to al Qaeda who is suspected of orchestrating the August bombing that killed 17 persons at Jordan’s embassy in Baghdad.

Zarqawi also is being tried in absentia for the killing of U.S. diplomat Laurence Foley in Amman, Jordan, in October last year.

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