While American military forces are prepared for war, the battle for a post-Saddam Iraq is also underway.
Saddam and his loosely affiliated terror groups are seeing to it-stepping up disruption of the Kurdish opposition in Iraq. His Republican Guards have taken positions to the west, terrorists wait in the east, and Turkish forces-bracing for retaliatory strikes from Baghdad-sit warily to the north. Some Kurdish homeowners are wrapping their houses in plastic sheets, their only defense against a chemical attack, they say, particularly after the UN-run bureaucracy in Baghdad denied gas-mask imports. Fuel, also from Baghdad, is drying up and prices are soaring.
Think war with Iraq will begin in United Nations Security Council chambers? Don't try to sell that notion among Saddam's opponents on the streets of Iraq.
Three days after Secretary of State Colin Powell disclosed that a terrorist group with links to both al-Qaeda and Baghdad is operating in northern Iraq, the group struck key U.S. allies there.
Gunmen from Ansar al Islam assassinated prominent Kurdish parliament member Shawkat Haji Mushir on Feb. 8, along with two other government officials. All were members of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK. Mr. Mushir was a close friend of PUK leader Jalal Talabani and one of seven soldiers who founded the party, which has established a democratic government in northern Iraq since the Gulf War and supports the United States' desire to oust Saddam Hussein.
"These kinds of attacks always take us by surprise, even though we know the threat is there," said Qubad Talabani, the PUK's spokesman in Washington and the party leader's son. "This attack was aimed at putting a dent in our military command structure because Gen. Mushir was at the forefront of this conflict."
Mr. Mushir, an experienced commander and popular figure from territory now controlled by terrorists, had for several months wooed a group of defectors from Ansar al Islam. He was told they could number over 100. When he showed up to meet with go-betweens by night in the village of Qamesh Tapa (30 miles south of the PUK capital at Sulaymaniyah), a team of gunmen posing as the negotiators opened fire. In addition to the three PUK deaths, three villagers were killed and 12 injured, including a critically wounded 8-year-old girl.
Trouble with Ansar al Islam started before the Powell disclosures. Last week's attack was its third ambush of Kurdish leaders. Ansar al Islam shot and killed Franso Hariri, longtime leader in the Kurdish Democratic Party, as he left his home in Irbil two years ago. Last April the group made a similar attempt on PUK Prime Minister Barham Salih; five bodyguards were killed but Mr. Salih escaped. The attack "served notice that we were facing something very serious," Mr. Salih told WORLD last May.
Ansar al Islam's ties to Baghdad and al-Qaeda extend beyond Jordanian al-Qaeda member Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and a poison factory he commissioned in northern Iraq-both the focus of Mr. Powell's Feb. 5 presentation to the UN Security Council. Kurdish officials arrested five highly trained terror operatives a year ago, each with high-level ties to both al-Qaeda and Mr. Hussein's intelligence bureau, the Mukhabarat.
WORLD interviewed one of the detainees, Haqi Ismail, in Sulaymaniyah last May. Mr. Ismail left Iraq after military duty for Jordan, and went to Afghanistan, where he served in one of the largest camps frequented by Osama bin Laden. He returned via Iran to Ansar al Islam territory as the U.S. assaults on bin Laden camps began. According to Kurdish security officers, Mr. Ismail's uncle is the Mukhabarat's top officer.
Mr. Powell also did not touch on the case of Mullah Kerikar, the Iraqi leader of Ansar al Islam. Mr. Kerikar was quietly released from custody in the Netherlands on Jan. 13 despite plans to extradite him to first the United States and then Jordan.
Security officers took into custody Mr. Kerikar, whose real name is Najmeddine Farraj, at Amsterdam's Schiphol airport on Sept. 12, 2002. He was en route from Iran to Oslo, Norway, where he has a permanent visa. At the time, according to Dutch authorities, Mr. Kerikar appeared on a U.S. wanted list for helping al-Qaeda produce "toxic chemical material." He also reportedly had trained 500 mujahideen fighters in Tora Bora.
U.S. authorities ordered surveillance on Mr. Kerikar before the Sept. 11 attacks. He disappeared at the time of the attacks and was not seen for a year. At the time of his arrest, an unnamed Dutch security source told the Saudi al-Watan daily that the Dutch would hand over the Ansar al Islam leader to U.S. authorities within a week. Instead, the extradition never took place. When Jordanian officials requested his extradition on drug trafficking and terrorism charges, the Dutch denied the request.
By the time Ansar al Islam formally organized on Sept. 1, 2001-under the name Jund al Islam-Mr. Kerikar already had the pedigree of an Islamic extremist: longtime membership in the Muslim Brotherhood, Islamic education in Pakistan, and several extended stints in Afghanistan. Three associates of Osama bin Laden were on hand to transfer $300,000 to the new terror group at that time, according to news accounts in London-based Arab newspapers. From a mountainous base overlooking the town of Halabja-not unlike the al-Qaeda hideouts in Afghanistan-the group publicized its purpose: to "terrorize enemies of Allah" and "undertake jihad in this region."
The base was an ideal location for diversifying al-Qaeda assets ahead of Sept. 11. The area around Halabja, which became a testing ground for gas attacks launched by Baghdad against 40 Kurdish villages in 1988, is a largely empty landscape. At least 5,000 of the city's 50,000 residents died in one day, and it has been mostly a no-man's land for Kurds ever since.
By October 2001, Jund al Islam fighters acquired heavy weapons, including Katyusha rocket launchers, anti-tank, and anti-aircraft guns. They seized control of seven towns in the region. They evicted Kurds from their homes, bombed beauty salons, and demanded that women wear head coverings. In villages under their control Kurdish was outlawed; only Arabic could be spoken. Mosque attendance became mandatory.
In December 2001 the group reorganized under the name Ansar al Islam after joining forces with other Islamic extremist groups from both Iraq and Iran. Fighting strength grew from about 150 to 600, including 400 "Afghan Arab" mercenaries trained in Afghanistan. That is when reports reached the PUK that members of Saddam Hussein's intelligence structure, the Mukhabarat, were among them.
"These Islamic terrorists want to change our way of life, our way of government," said Kurdish Prime Minister Salih. Attacks "should if anything reinforce our commitment to civil society, to the rule of law, and to justice." Mr. Salih says if there is a model for future Iraq, it is the secular government of largely Muslim Turkey.
Planning for postwar Iraq prompted a group of prominent Iraqi exiles to cover mountain passes in a snowstorm to reach their homeland. Iraqi National Congress leader Ahmed Chalabi and about a dozen associates made the trip from London to northern Iraq last week. They met with Kurdish counterparts and heads of other organizations opposed to Saddam.
The trip was a first for Mr. Chalabi, who was kicked out of the country in 1996. Despite threats from terrorists and proximity to Baghdad, opposition figures want to show they are serious about planning a post-Saddam future without Western supervision. To do that, they must first get serious about getting along with one another.
About two dozen groups, some operating within Iraq's borders and some in exile, bring past recriminations, including armed conflict, and ethnic tension to the table. The common goal is coming into focus, according to Mr. Chalabi's daughter Tamara, also a delegate: commitment "to rid Iraq of its totalitarian incarceration and establish a democratic state."
That future must wait. Across the border in Turkey, workers are constructing a refugee camp big enough to hold nearly half a million fleeing Iraqis, a grim portent of hard days to come.