- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 20, 2003

Members of a northern Iraq terrorist group, believed to have ties to both Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda, have resurfaced in Iraq, months after they were routed at the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom. They are among the clandestine units attacking U.S. troops.

Military officials say a few hundred members of Ansar al-Islam (Supporters of Islam), who fled to Iran after they were targeted by U.S. special forces operating with local Kurdish fighters, have sneaked back into Iraq across remote passages in the mountainous Iran-Iraq border.

“The bottom line is, they are a threat,” said Army Maj. Pete Mitchell, a spokesman for the U.S. Central Command. “Are they the predominant threat in the country? I think that’s too difficult to quantify or ascertain.”

The radical Islamist group, which emerged in northern Iraq’s Kurdish area just days before the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, had nearly 700 members located in camps and villages near the Iranian border before the war. Less than two weeks after the war began March 20, military officials asserted that Ansar al-Islam had been routed.

Maj. Mitchell said others threatening U.S. troops include Ba’ath Party loyalists, remnants of Iraq’s elite Fedayeen Saddam and a variety of “foreign fighters,” who have trickled into the country to fight the occupation.

Ansar al-Islam reportedly began its push to carve out an Islamist state there in late 2001, when it seized about 18 villages and 4,000 civilians with Taliban-style tactics, burning beauty salons and girls’ schools and publicly killing women who refused to cover their faces.

It also took up positions against the major Kurdish political groups seeking autonomy in northern Iraq, declaring in a fatwa, or manifesto, its opposition to the secular society there.

Before the Iraq war, President Bush cited the need to rid Saddam of weapons of mass destruction. In his State of the Union Address last January, Mr. Bush said Saddam “aids and protects terrorists, including members of al Qaeda.”

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

Making his case for war to the U.N. Security Council in February, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said Zarqawi, 42, also had ties to Saddam and that Baghdad “had an agent in the most senior levels” of Ansar al-Islam, suggesting the group was the link between Saddam’s regime and al Qaeda.

Though various authorities have supported claims that Ansar al-Islam is linked with al Qaeda, the degree to which the group was connected to Saddam’s regime before the war remains disputed.

A military source recently told The Washington Times that Ansar al-Islam “certainly had al Qaeda ties,” although it’s “probably not correct” to say the group collaborated with Saddam, because it was based north of the “green line” — the border between Saddam’s prewar Iraq and the protected northern no-fly zone.

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