Powell were to visit the shabby military compound at the foot of a
large snow-covered mountain, he might be in for an unpleasant surprise.
The US Secretary of State last week confidently described the compound
in north-eastern Iraq - run by an Islamic terrorist group Ansar
al-Islam - as a 'terrorist chemicals and poisons factory.'
however, it emerged that the terrorist factory was nothing of the kind
- more a dilapidated collection of concrete outbuildings at the foot of
a grassy sloping hill. Behind the barbed wire, and a courtyard strewn
with broken rocket parts, are a few empty concrete houses. There is a
bakery. There is no sign of chemical weapons anywhere - only the smell
of paraffin and vegetable ghee used for cooking.
the kitchen, I discovered some chopped up tomatoes but not much else.
The cook had left his Kalashnikov propped neatly against the wall.
al Islam - the Islamic group that uses the compound identified by
Powell as a military HQ to launch murderous attacks against secular
Kurdish opponents - yesterday invited me and several other foreign
journalists into their territory for the first time.
are just a group of Muslims trying to do our duty,' Mohammad Hasan,
spokesman for Ansar al-Islam, explained. 'We don't have any drugs for
our fighters. We don't even have any aspirin. How can we produce any
chemicals or weapons of mass destruction?' he asked.
radical terrorist group controls a tiny mountainous chunk of Kurdistan,
the self-rule enclave of northern Iraq. Over the past year Ansar's
fighters have been at war with the Kurdish secular parties who control
the rest of the area. Every afternoon both sides mortar each other
across a dazzling landscape of mountain and shimmering green pasture.
Until last week this was an obscure and parochial conflict.
last Wednesday Powell suggested that the 500-strong band of Ansar
fighters had links with both al-Qaeda and Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
They were, he hinted, a global menace - and more than that they were
the elusive link between Osama bin Laden and Iraq.
is clearly little more than cheap hyperbole. Yesterday Hassan took the
unprecedented step of inviting journalists into what was previously
forbidden territory in an almost certainly doomed attempt to prevent an
American missile strike once the war with Iraq kicks off. Ali Bapir, a
warlord in the neighboring town of Khormal, leant us several fighters
armed with machine guns and we set off.
drove past an Ansar checkpoint, marked with a black flag and the
Islamic militia's logo - the Koran, a sheaf of wheat and a sword. We
kept going. The landscape was littered with the ruins of demolished
houses, destroyed during Saddam's infamous Anfal campaign against the
Kurds in 1988. At the corner of the valley we passed a pink mosque,
with sandbagging on the roof. Washing hung from a courtyard. A group of
Ansar fighters - in green military fatigues - smiled and waved us on.
of their comrades were in the graveyard across the road. There were
numerous fresh plots, each marked with a black flag. After 20 minutes'
drive along a twisting mountain track we arrived in Serget - the
village identified from space by American satellite as a haven of
however, Hassan was at pains to deny any link with al-Qaeda. 'All we
are trying to do is fulfil the prophet's goals,' he said. 'Read the
Koran and you'll understand.'
officials from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan - the party with which
Ansar is at war - insist that the Islamic guerrillas based in the
village have been experimenting with poisons. They have smeared a crude
form of cyanide on door handles. They had even tried it out on several
farm animals, including sheep and donkeys, they claim. The guerrillas
have also managed to construct a 1.5kg 'chemical' bomb designed to
explode and kill anyone within a 50-metre radius, Kurdish intelligence
yesterday dismissed all these allegations as 'lies'. 'We don't have any
chemical weapons. As you can see this is an isolated place,' Ayub
Khadir, another fighter, with a bushy pirate beard and blue turban,
said. And yet, despite the fact there appeared to be no evidence of
chemical experimentation, Ansar's complex was lavish for an
organization that purports to be made up merely of simple Muslims.
Concealed in a concrete bunker, we discovered a sophisticated
television studio, complete with cameras, editing equipment and a
neighboring room were several computers, beneath shelves full of
videotapes. A banner written in Arabic proclaims: 'Those who believe in
Islam will be rewarded.'
recently Ansar had its own website where the faithful could log on to
footage of Ansar guerrillas in battle. In small concrete bunkers the
fighters operated their own radio station, Radio Jihad. The announcer
had clearly been sitting on an empty box of explosives. Hassan denied
yesterday that his revolutionary group received any funding from
Baghdad or from Iran, a short hike away over the mountains.
Colin Powell were to come here he would see that we have nothing to
hide,' he said. But Ansar's sources of funding remain mysterious - and
their real purpose tantalizingly unclear. 'All Ansar fighters are from
Iraq,' Hassan said. 'Iraq is one of the richest countries in the world.
Our fighters have brought their own things with them.'
while they appear to pose no real threat to Washington or London,
Ansar's fighters are a brutal bunch. They have so far killed more than
800 opposition Kurdish fighters. They have shot dead several civilians.
They have even tried - last April - to assassinate the Prime Minister
of the neighboring town of Sulamaniyah, the mild-mannered Dr Barham
Salih. The plot went wrong and two of the assassins were shot dead. A
third is in prison. 'We are fed up with them. We wish they would go
away,' one villager, who refused to be named, said.
militia's weapons had been inherited, captured from their enemies or
bought from smugglers, Hassan said. Kurdish intelligence sources insist
that there is 'solid and tangible proof' linking Ansar both to Iraqi
intelligence agents and to al-Qaeda. They say that a group of fighters
visited Afghanistan twice before the fall of the Taliban and met Abu
Hafs, one of bin Laden's key lieutenants.
yesterday refused to say how many fighters were holed up in the three
villages and one mountain valley under Ansar's control ('It's a
military secret,' he said) and claimed - implausibly - that none of his
men were Arab volunteers come to fight jihad in Iraq.
Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003