- The Washington Times - Monday, February 2, 2004

The twin bombs that killed and maimed more than 200 civilians in Iraqi Kurdistan on the first day of the Islamic Eid al-Adha holiday have sent a simple message to the people of Iraq and to the United States: The terrorist threat in postwar Iraq requires a radical new, joint U.S.-Iraqi approach if it is to be to combated effectively.

As others have suggested, the attack bares all the hallmarks of Ansar al-Islam, a local affiliate of al Qaeda, which started operations in Kurdistan from mountain hideouts near the Iranian border shortly after the September 11 attacks on the United States.

When the war started last spring, Ansar was routed from their bases in a joint U.S. Special Forces and Kurdish fighters operation. Kurdish officials at the time claimed that more than 250 of the 700-plus forces were killed. But no journalist saw more than a few bodies. Even so, the rest obviously fled to the Iranian border a couple of miles up the mountain. Eye witnesses from border villages said at the time that cars and buses were waiting for Ansar fighters on the Iranian side of the border.

When their hideouts were searched after they fled, many Syrian, Jordanian, Saudi, Moroccan and other passports were found. They all had Iranian visas stamped in them.

With the end of war and the breakdown of border controls, operatives of the group have apparently managed to slip back to Iraq from the southern, non-Kurdish border crossings to bases in Baghdad, Fallujah and Mosul. They joined a complex web of insurgents that included foreign fighters, who provide money and suicide bombers, and remnants of the former regime, who provides the local knowledge and guidance. Ansar operatives proved in Kurdistan that they have both local knowledge and a ruthless willingness to kill and commit suicide.

The timing and the place of the Islamic holiday attack is seen by many as a violent act of revenge against the Kurds for their cooperation with the United States. It also sends a strong message that nowhere is safe and nothing is sacred.

The attack shook the Kurds out of their complacency. Kurdistan has remained a relatively safe and secure place compared to the “other” Iraq. With Saddam gone, most Kurds thought all their problems were gone. They aren’t.

Reports from Arbil indicate an unprecedented display of unity among Kurds in the wake of the attack. Many on the street hope that this shared tragedy will push the divided Kurdish leadership to finally move past their seemingly endless rhetoric and unite their two administrations.

As for the rest of Iraq, the attack illustrates that the terrorist threat must be eliminated, or at least minimized, before there can be any effective steps to shape the future of the country. Elections, for example, are not possible in the current atmosphere of fear and violence. Candidates will not be able to address political rallies. Political parties cannot hold nationwide meetings. People will be afraid to stand in lines at polling stations.

The Kurdish north was seen as the most peaceful, organized, prosperous area of the country, and therefore the most prepared to hold elections. But they are clearly not untouchable.

This type of suicide attack is a new phenomenon in Iraq — the Ba’athists were brutal but they operated overtly, using police and military tactics. The Iraqi people need new skills, new processes and a new awareness to counter these terrorist tactics.

And the United States needs a new approach — iron hammers aren’t cutting it. The United States needs a partnership with the Iraqis. Neither can do it alone.

The threat comes from a combination of local and international elements. The Iraqi people can tackle the Ba’athist loyalists who provide local guidance for bombing operations with counter intelligence. The United States can tackle the international hand by securing Iraq’s borders. Sophisticated U.S. electronic intelligence-gathering techniques clearly need the analysis that only Iraqis can provide.

The recent wave of attacks throughout the country proved to ordinary Iraqis that they are targets as much as the “occupier.” They need a sense of investment and ownership in combating those who would not hesitate to kill them. A natiowide anti-terror campaign and a good tipping-off system are needed to enable ordinary Iraqis to report on foreign fighters or on terrorist cells in their neighborhoods.

Another important front in the war against the terrorists is to cut the production line. Improved economic opportunities and a better education system would alter the circumstances that create the breeding ground for potential terrorists.

In addition, a new moderate and open style of religious education needs to be encouraged. For many terrorists, the key word that they fall back on is jihad (holy war). Redefining the concept, or even explaining the proper meaning of the word by Islamic clergy, would provide ordinary people with the ammunition they need to resist being exploited like the killers in Arbil were.

In short, the United States needs to stop further foreign infiltration, and Iraqis need to stop further recruitment.

Hiwa Osman is a Baghdad-based journalist.

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