- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 14, 2003

U.S. military forces in northern Iraq have captured a senior member of Ansar al-Islam, an Islamic-extremist group suspected of ties to Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda terrorist network, federal law-enforcement authorities said yesterday.

Members of the Army’s 101st Airborne Division, operating near Mosul last week, arrested Aso Hawleri, also known as Asad Muhammad Hasan, who is considered by American authorities a “top lieutenant” of Ansar al-Islam.

The Pentagon has not publicly announced the arrest, though federal law- enforcement authorities who spoke on the condition of anonymity told The Washington Times that Mr. Hawleri was arrested along with others. It was not disclosed yesterday where he is being held.

U.S. military officials have said a few hundred members of Ansar al-Islam, which emerged in northern Iraq’s Kurdish area just days before the September 11 terrorist attacks, are believed to be among the clandestine units resisting U.S. forces now occupying Iraq.

Before the war, the group, whose name means “Supporters of Islam,” had its base camp in northern Iraq’s mountains near the Iranian border.

The base was targeted by U.S. Special Forces in the first days of the war, but dozens of its inhabitants are said to have escaped, slipping through the mountains into Iran, whence they’ve since sneaked back to join the postwar resistance in Iraq, military officials have said.

One federal law-enforcement official yesterday said that at one time, Mr. Hawleri headed a military unit in the Islamic Movement of Kurdistan (IMK), one of the major prewar Kurdish political groups that included about 400 heavily armed men who had trained extensively in Afghanistan.

The official said Mr. Hawleri served as a member of the IMK central council, a post he assumed in 1997. But the group later split into several entities, including one founded by its extremist members, first known as the Jund al-Islam and later as Ansar al-Islam.

Ansar al-Islam’s spiritual leader, Mullah Krekar, has denied the group has ties to al Qaeda. Arrested in September 2002 in the Netherlands and deported to Norway, Mullah Krekar was eventually released when a Norwegian court ruled there was insufficient evidence to hold him on suspicion of being a terrorist.

In addition to denying any ties between Ansar al-Islam and al Qaeda, Mullah Krekar also has publicly denied claims that al Qaeda was linked to Saddam Hussein’s regime.

Various authorities have said Ansar al-Islam is linked with al Qaeda. In the months leading up to the invasion of Iraq, the Bush administration said members of the group were a key link between Saddam Hussein’s regime and al Qaeda.

However, the degree to which Ansar al-Islam was connected to Saddam Hussein’s regime before the war remains disputed. Military sources have said Ansar “certainly had al Qaeda ties,” though it is “probably not correct” to say the group collaborated with Saddam, because it was based north of the “green line” between Saddam’s zone of control in central Iraq and the northern no-fly zone.

President Bush, in his January State of the Union address, said Saddam Hussein “aids and protects terrorists, including members of al Qaeda.”

The claim apparently derived from reports that Abu Musaab Zarqawi, a Jordanian believed by the United States to harbor ties to al Qaeda and Ansar al-Islam, received medical attention at an exclusive Baghdad clinic in May 2002.

Jerry Seper contributed to this report.

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