They considered themselves the true believers of the faith. But now that the Ansar al-Islam militants are gone, the Kurdish villagers who lived among them in northern Iraq say they were nothing but fanatics.
"How dare they call us infidels! If you say 'There is no god but God and Mohammed is his prophet,' then you are a Muslim," said Osman Wahab, 65, freely puffing on a cigarette for the first time in three years.
In the village of Biyara nestled in the mountains near the Iranian border in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq, men were busy this weekend shaving their beards and smoking — reveling in their new freedom. A woman stood in the center of town and tore off her enveloping black abaya. She tossed her hair in the sun for a moment, smiling broadly, before donning a simple headscarf.
At least 700 Ansar militants had established Taliban-like restrictions on about 30 villages here, forcing the local residents to practice a narrow interpretation of Islam that was alien to the moderate Muslim traditions practiced among most Kurds.
Pro Bin Laden
"They are al Qaeda," said Commander Ghafur Darwish, sunning himself on a roof after his peshmerga soldiers retook control of Biyara. "Ansar was using Islam as a cover. They are terrorists."
Ansar's leaders praised Osama bin Laden and sheltered his so-called mujahideen, or holy warriors, that were run out of Afghanistan last year, so it seemed only a matter of time before America took notice.
In February, Ansar was added to the U.S. list of terrorist groups, and in the following month U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell told the United Nations Security Council that Ansar's ties to al Qaeda and Baghdad were part of the justification for a war against Iraq.
America was expected to lead an attack on Ansar along with several thousand Kurdish soldiers, to mop up this terrorist threat before opening the northern front of the war.
Finally, the fight began late last week, and within days most of the Ansar fighters had fled to Iran or were killed. Some snuck across the border with the help of smugglers, but Iranian authorities, once thought to be Ansar's main benefactors, are now detaining more than 100, including four leaders, Kurdish officials say.
Wahab lost his house and two shops in the recent airstrikes, but says it was worth it to be rid of Ansar. "We thank God they are gone," he said. "Even having nothing is better than living with Ansar. Now we are free."
For several years Ansar had fought to overthrow the secular Kurdish government via unsuccessful assassination attempts on its leaders and sometimes deadly artillery and mortar attacks on peshmerga soldiers. Their tactics were brutal — Kurdish soldiers who surrendered or were captured were summarily executed, their bodies mutilated and displayed on the Ansar Web site and videotapes, and left on the side of the road in warning.
An Ansar member killed an Australian journalist two weeks ago in a suicide bombing attack, but most of their victims have been other Muslims. Islamic scholars generally agree that both suicide attacks and war against other Muslims is forbidden under Islam.