The mysterious, violent Taliban-like group Ansar al-Islam that is waging war in Northern Iraq must seem to offer the Bush administration one of the elusive keys to uniting reluctant allies in a war against Saddam Hussein: proof of a connection between Iraq and al Qaeda.
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But according to extensive ABCNEWS reporting, including interviews with captured Ansar fighters, no such link can yet be shown.
The group, whose name means supporters of Islam, rules a remote portion of the autonomous northern Kurdish territories in Iraq near the Iran border. Its 600 or so members impose a strict interpretation of Islamic law on the several thousand villagers under their control, much the way the Taliban did in Afghanistan. At least some of their members claim training in Taliban and al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan.
ABCNEWS has confirmed that U.S. officials are interested in the group. CIA agents and small numbers of U.S Special Forces have visited the area, promising aid to the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, which has controlled much of the area since the 1991 Gulf War.
U.S. and PUK officials have both described Ansar as having links to al Qaeda, even calling the town of Biarrah a new base for important al Qaeda leaders.
Iraq analysts, however, believe that Ansar al-Islam is more a product of the chaos that reigns in the fractious Northern Iraq territories, than a sign of burgeoning Islamic fundamentalism among the Kurds.
The situation there is unstable, with fighting among the various Kurdish factions, neighboring nations trying to extend their influence in the region, and Saddam Hussein's attempts at de-stabilizing the Kurds from within.
Ansar al-Islam, they say, is a product of what al Qaeda thrives on — a stateless society.
And that is why it is possible that accounts of al Qaeda fighters lurking within Ansar al-Islam could be true. Foreign sources tell ABCNEWS that scores of al Qaeda fighters who fled to Iran after the Taliban fell in Afghanistan were captured by the Iranian government. Those not detained, or deported to Saudi Arabia, where exiled over the border into Kurdish Iraq territory, where Ansar al-Islam operates.
Nevertheless, sources say this is not the smoking gun that will prove substantial links between the two organizations, and tell ABCNEWS that Ansar is believed to be supported by Iran, not al Qaeda. A maximum of 100 members Ansar al-Islam could be Arab/al Qaeda fighters, they say.
Central to the U.S. suspicion that al Qaeda and Ansar al-Islam are coordinating, is a man named Majamuddin Fraraj Ahmad, who is also known as Mullah Krekar.
He praised Osama bin Laden only a few months before the Sept. 11 attacks on America, but no one has found convincing evidence of a link between him and bin Laden, or Saddam Hussein.
Krekar is believed to be a founder Ansar al-Islam, which split away from Mujahadeen of Kurdistan — or the IMK, which is also at odds with the PUK — because they were discussing a peace deal with the PUK.
Krekar was detained in Holland last year on drug-related charges after he was expelled from Iran, but was recently released and sent to Norway, where he has not been arrested.
He has generally been regarded as a moderate, and his removal from the scene means more radical elements may now hold sway over Ansar.
Since the Iranians have barred Krekar, some analysts believe this may be a sign that the Iranians are cutting off support for Ansar al-Islam.