SULAYMANIYAH, Iraq—To get to Sulaymaniyah requires a plane, an early morning truck ride through the oil wells and wheat fields of northern Syria, two checkpoints, a river crossing, a snaking road of seven hours to the next checkpoint, a demilitarized zone where guests are handed from one Kurdish zone of protection to another, and a final car ride of two hours. Thankfully this is Mesopotamia, the Fertile Crescent, and the landscape is an ever-changing parade of rushing waters, green pasture, and hillsides giving way to distant snowcapped mountains. This is also Iraq, where most U.S. passports became invalid Feb. 8, 1991, after the United States defeated Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War. Kurdish authorities who control this region are careful to protect American reporters who turn up here, knowing there are spies from Baghdad and elsewhere. The escort into the detention center in downtown Sulaymaniyah includes three armed guards who are never more than a few feet away. The Gulf War may be over but a new war, many here suspect, is about to begin.
Haqi Ismail decided to shave. Just the day before, he wore the customary beard of Afghan mujahideen. Until a few weeks ago he went about in traditional Afghan clothing, tunic and sash with loose-fitting trousers. Now he wears the drawstring pants but has exchanged the rest for orange plastic sandals and an American T-shirt advertising a "Tri State Martial Arts Tournament."
When he enters the office of the security chief, the authorities chuckle at his new guise. One asks, "So now you have decided to leave al-Qaeda?" The young, prematurely balding mujahid is polite but refuses eye contact. He laughs nervously, and swallows several times.
Charlie Manson might have been paroled if he'd tried this. But at the jailhouse in northern Iraq, where Kurdish parties reign in opposition to Saddam Hussein, no one is buying Mr. Ismail's tender face and neat sideburns.
The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan detained Mr. Ismail six months ago when he tried to cross the border from Iran near here.
Security officers who oversee this detention center told WORLD they believe he is a top operative in Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda organization. He is an Iraqi citizen with connections to the government of Saddam Hussein, whose territory begins just half an hour south of here. They believe his connections include ties to Saddam's powerful intelligence service, known as the Mukhabarat, which is the main security arm of the government. In southern Iraq, Mr. Ismail's uncle is the top officer in Mukhabarat. His father is retired from the Iraqi air force.
Kurdish officials realize that holding him indefinitely-along with at least four other detainees who have suspicious pasts in Afghanistan-is a powerful card with which to force the hand of the United States on Saddam Hussein. The detainees are evidence that Saddam Hussein played a role in the events of Sept. 11.
Intelligence officers shared with WORLD a substantial dossier compiled after months of interrogating Mr. Ismail. He is from Mosul, a city of 1.5 million controlled by Baghdad. In October 1994 he left school in Mosul and completed a mandatory tour of military duty. "I was released from military forces in 1995. I obtained my Iraqi passport, then I went to Jordan, to Amman," he said. He told investigators he was then dissatisfied with the shallow secular Islam of Saddam Hussein's regime.
From there he went to Afghanistan in 1999, according to the transcript. In Kabul he met a man named Ahmed who took him in a pickup truck to one of al-Qaeda's camps.
During a face-to-face interview at the Sulaymaniyah detention center, he told WORLD, "I went there looking for work, I was searching for religious schools. That was my ambition." He said Afghanistan was "the only country with an Islamic state that was freely helping anyone getting involved in religion." At first, he said, he was trying to get into one of Kabul's madrassas, religious schools run by the Taliban. But then he said he was "only learning in the mosques," until the "accident"-a reference to Sept. 11. "Then I left."
But according to the information he gave previously to investigators, he was by that time heavily involved in the activities of al-Qaeda and knew about impending attacks on the United States. "They were expecting such an accident," a transcript of his previous statements reads. "They told us, 'Soon you will hear good news.' Really the accident and explosion in Washington and New York happened right away."
Mr. Ismail repeatedly uses the word accident in reference to the events of Sept. 11. Questioned about the word choice, he told WORLD, "I didn't say that. I said 'problem.'"
In his 53-page dossier are three maps he confirmed are in his own handwriting. One traces the mountain camp known as al-Farouk. At the center is a mosque, surrounded by tents, a clinic, a weapons storehouse, guest quarters, and a main house. Underground entries and exits are also penned in by Mr. Ismail. The secret camp was reportedly one of the largest al-Qaeda hideouts, one frequented by Osama bin Laden and where he met with American al-Qaeda member John Walker Lindh.
A second map shows #10 guest house in Gulam Baçhas section of Kabul. Mr. Ismail says this house was used by al-Qaeda.
A third map outlines another compound, including cave quarters, in the mountains at Afghanistan's border with Pakistan.
With much of the territory bombarded by U.S. forces, the maps may be of little logistical use. To Kurdish officials what is more important is what the maps suggest: that they are holding someone who had day-to-day working knowledge of al-Qaeda. And someone who thought it was important to risk returning to Iraq.
Since Sept. 11 the case for Iraqi involvement in the attacks on the United States has gradually gained momentum. Czech intelligence officers say that American Airlines Flight 11 hijacker Mohammed Atta met last spring in Prague with Ahmed Khalil Ibrahim Samir al-Ani, the second secretary of the Iraqi Consul in Prague and an Iraqi foreign intelligence service officer. Mr. al-Ani was involved in a plot to bomb the Czech Republic headquarters of Radio Free Europe, according to an Iraqi intelligence defector debriefed in Britain in 1998. He was expelled from Prague before the Sept. 11 attacks.
After the attacks on New York and Washington, two defectors from Saddam Hussein's military-a lieutenant general and a captain-revealed a terrorist training camp in southern Iraq where hijackers are trained in a Boeing 707. Another defector, nuclear physicist Khidhir Hamza, has described an Iraqi program for weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons.
But while evidence mounts, absolute proof that the Iraqi regime had advance knowledge of attacks on the United States seems to elude those in the Bush administration who want to oust the Iraqi dictator. Leading that campaign are Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz. CIA and FBI investigators, along with the diplomatic corps, have been reluctant to follow on.
Kurdish officials want a signal from Washington before deciding what to do with their al-Qaeda detainees. They opened the cases for the media, beginning with American journalist Jeffrey Goldberg in January, when Washington was taking no interest in them. No CIA or FBI officials had bothered to visit northern Iraq to investigate these cases, the security officers complain. So they have continued to hold Mr. Ismail and others.
They say Mr. Ismail's statements contrast with the usual breakdown many prisoners exhibit during indefinite confinement and repeated questioning. At first he gave many details about his terrorist connections. Security officers (who insisted to WORLD that they not be named in print as a condition for the interview) say he has become more evasive since the initial interrogations, which they have on videotape.
"At first he was open," said the chief of security, "but now that the journalists have come he is afraid he will be taken to America. Psychologically he trusted us because we treated him very well. He thought this would be a quick thing. But my job is to investigate. If not today, I have tomorrow. If not tomorrow, I have next month. We are waiting."
On the security chief's desk is a healthy stack of files for the detainees from Afghanistan. One of the men said he served as a bodyguard to Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden's second-in-command, when he visited Baghdad in 1992. Mr. Zawahiri met with Saddam Hussein during the visit. The detainee, named Qassem Hussein Muhammad, is an officer in Mukhabarat. Another is an Iranian Arab smuggler named Muhammad Mansour Shahab who says he worked for Osama bin Laden. He smuggled weapons and refrigerator motors with liquid canisters that he believes contained chemical or biological weapons. All were caught trying to navigate back through the Kurdish-controlled area of northern Iraq. Taken together, their testimony suggests that al-Qaeda finances and communicates with terrorist cells inside Iraq, who in turn have ties to the Mukhabarat.
Asked whether his government has discussed the detainees with U.S. investigators, Barham Salih, prime minister for the region, said, "My government will not comment on any intelligence matters." He refused to say how many suspects with ties to Osama bin Laden he is holding or whether he took along their files when he met with "senior policymakers" in Washington three weeks ago.
During that time, U.S. and British forces began a new offensive in the mountains of southeastern Afghanistan. Their aim is to locate al-Qaeda fighters in a base believed used by Osama bin Laden. They are also preparing for an operation on both sides of the border with Pakistan, an area close to one of the areas mapped by Mr. Ismail.
But while the Bush administration talks openly about its intent to go to war against Iraq, Kurdish officials have reason to be cautious. Saddam Hussein's tanks and artillery are positioned only half an hour's drive from Sulaymaniyah. The region's security is dependent on the United States and Great Britain, who jointly patrol the area as part of a NATO no-fly zone established at the end of the Gulf War in 1991.
The Kurds are an ethnic minority in Iraq. Repeatedly they have been the target for annihilation by Saddam Hussein. He ordered the use of chemical weapons against Kurdish villages during the Iran-Iraq war in 1988-killing 100,000 men, women, and children. At the end of the Gulf War, tens of thousands more were slaughtered by Iraqi troops after they attempted an uprising. That is when the first President George Bush authorized the no-fly zone across Iraq's northeastern tier.
Under its protection, the two main parties-Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and Kurdistan Democratic Party-have established separate administrative governments that feature local representation and broad individual freedoms. In downtown Sulaymaniyah, Mr. Salih's government has constructed a children's playground called Freedom Park on a site where Iraqi troops once imprisoned and tortured local Kurds. Local enterprises, including supermarkets, Internet cafes, and 30-cents-a-minute international cell phone service are prospering in the safe haven. War with Saddam Hussein and the terrorist infiltration threaten those gains.
"We live in a tough neighborhood," said Mr. Salih. "But we are very careful not to overreact and not to undermine the values of rule of law we have said to our people we would honor."
Mr. Salih told WORLD his government began seeing terrorist activity from a nearby fundamentalist group, Ansar al Islam, soon after U.S. bombing in Afghanistan began. The group, which until recently operated under the name Jund al-Islam, has a base among Kurdish villages in the mountains near the Iranian border. Mr. Salih has his own reasons for taking their threats seriously. On April 2 members of Ansar al Islam ambushed Mr. Salih in Sulaymaniyah just after he met with a U.S. delegation. In the attack, the militants opened fire using assault rifles and grenades, killing five of Mr. Salih's bodyguards before they were killed or captured.
"We are in a heightened state of alert. People are anxious," Mr. Salih said. The assassination attempt "served notice that we were facing something very serious."
When authorities arrested one of the prime minister's would-be assassins, they discovered that the trained killer had also been to Jordan and to Yemen-countries where Ansar al Islam as well as al-Qaeda reportedly have cell groups.
Officials discovered that detainee Mr. Ismail is familiar with al-Qaeda activity in Yemen also. Asked whether al-Qaeda was responsible for the 1999 explosion of the USS Cole in the Yemen harbor of Adana, he replied, "Yes. Even in the songs they were talking about the USS Cole and repeating [the phrase] 'American ships.'"
As U.S. forces flush out al-Qaeda units in Afghanistan, Kurdish authorities suspect their own patrols will encounter more Iraqi Afghans trying to cross the remote mountain reaches at the Iran-Iraq border. They may be en route to making contact with other terror groups inside Iraq. Or they may aim to establish a communications link between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. Kurds have no advanced weaponry to rely on, and the no-fly zone prohibits them from developing air defenses. So they are dependent on a U.S. response.
"I think it's very clear that the president of the United States has made a policy decision seeking the removal of this present regime in Iraq. For the first time we are hearing from the U.S. policymakers saying that what they want from Iraq is a representative, broad-based democracy. They are no longer interested in a coup, they are no longer interested in a change in one dictator by the other," Mr. Salih said.
But Kurdish officials are somewhat skeptical about U.S. intent. In 1989, after nerve gas killed over 100,000 Kurds, President George H.W. Bush vetoed sanctions legislation targeting Saddam Hussein's regime. At the end of the Gulf War Mr. Bush called on the "Iraqi military and the Iraqi people" to rise up and "force Saddam Hussein to step aside." Kurds followed through with an uprising across the region-which was crushed by the Iraqi tanks and helicopters Mr. Bush had allowed Saddam Hussein to keep after the U.S. withdrawal. Thousands of villages, from Sulaymaniyah to the northern border, were destroyed.
Mr. Salih said, "I have been around long enough to realize that the expectations game is a dangerous one. We are talking day-to-day survival in this part of the world."