March 5, 2003


Fire on the mountain
   Kurds wage deadly battle with radical Islamic warriors

Copley News Service

SHINERWE MOUNTAIN, Iraq While the world debates an attack on Iraq, war has already come to this remote northeastern corner of the country.

The conflict is a reminder of just how complex and volatile the political and military landscape is here. The area is viewed as explosive because of combatants with competing agendas and longstanding animosities.

Every day, from their mountaintop observation posts, Kurdish fighters known as peshmergas exchange mortar fire with radical Islamic holy warriors fighting under the banner of Ansar al-Islam, or supporters of Islam.

A distance of 25 football fields separates the earthen-berm observation posts of each side, which are fortified with stones and sandbags. The fighters can barely see each other at that distance.

The peshmergas seek an independent homeland for the Kurdish people, who inhabit a large portion of northern Iraq. Kurds, who are mostly Sunni Muslim, also live in southern Turkey, western Iran and eastern Syria.

Kurdish and U.S. authorities say Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda terrorist network helped found, fund and train Ansar.

The fundamentalists have been waging a brutal campaign to occupy and impose strict Islamic law on a cluster of secular Iraqi Kurdish villages pressed against the base of the snowy mountains marking the Iran-Iraq border.

Kurdish and U.S. authorities also say Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is helping Ansar, including providing chemical weapons. The group denies the charge, and many experts find it less credible than the link to bin Laden.

Ansar, a coalition of Iraqi Kurdish Islamic fundamentalists, announced its formation just days before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

After the Taliban regime collapsed in Afghanistan in November 2001, fighters of different nationalities arrived here from Afghanistan. They include Saudi Arabians, Algerians and Afghans.

Since arriving, they have mirrored the actions of the Taliban in forcing men to wear beards and women to wear full-length gowns and cover their faces. They prohibit TVs, radios and other electronic devices, according to those who have fled Ansar's small area of control.

The Ansar fighters number about 700, but their paramilitary tactics have become more ruthless, including a recent suicide attack at a Kurdish checkpoint that killed a bomber and three others.

The tactics have drawn comparisons to the 11th century Hashishins, a society of assassins known for their use of poison-tipped daggers and consumption of hashish before embarking on suicide missions. The Hashishins operated from a mountaintop fortress called Alamut.

Ansar fighters weren't interviewed because they have threatened to kill any foreign journalists they encounter.

Secretary of State Colin Powell put the international spotlight on the group in his Feb. 5 report to the United Nations. Powell said al-Qaeda operative Abu Musab Zarqawi had established a "poison and explosive" training center in the Ansar area. He also said that an agent of Hussein was an Ansar leader.

The State Department on Feb. 20 declared Ansar a terrorist group, charging that bin Laden had provided up to $600,000 in funds to the group and that it was experimenting with ricin, the deadly chemical.

One recent day, 6,000 feet above a greening valley floor, with Iran's snow-capped mountain border lying just beyond, only a few song-happy larks and a foraging mole were disturbing the late-afternoon peace.

Suddenly, a radio crackled and three peshmergas dove into their bunkers anticipating the arrival of a 120mm mortar round fired from somewhere below.

Three times the radio crackled. Three times the fighters dove for cover. The incoming shell missed them as they hunkered in the soft amber sunlight filtering through the stones of their crude bunker.

Abdullah Helkawt, 44, commands the 200 peshmergas who guard the front against Ansar al-Islam. They live at the top of Shinerwe Mountain, where they are cold, isolated and vulnerable.

Inside the small one-room, low-slung dwelling where Helkawt sleeps on the floor with other peshmergas, he and several of his men had just finished a dinner of sliced tomatoes, bread and hard-boiled eggs.

It was time for the men to leave for their posts and a minor fracas erupted. There weren't enough peshmergas to properly guard all the posts and it was unbearably cold outside. Some young peshmergas apparently were afraid and balked at their assignments.

After their leader upbraided them, they reluctantly headed out the door in their customary balloon pants, tennis shoes and parkas.

Helkawt and a few others bedded down with the light of a single lantern. Their Kalashnikovs were hung on the wall or at their side.

The room they shared was built against the side of the mountain and its walls of stone and mortar are about 18 inches thick. Sleeping almost shoulder to shoulder, they would have to doze through each other's snores, draw heat from each other's bodies and sleep lightly to avoid the recent fate of another post.

Ansar raided that post before sunrise and killed 49 peshmergas as they slept. The attack by the Islamic fundamentalists came during the holy month of Ramadan, a time when Muslims are expected to refrain from killing, especially each other, Helkawt said.

"It is very hard, but if we abandon this post Ansar will attack us in our homes," he said. "They would impose strict Islamic rules on our women. We must stay here and keep them away."

He recounted a well-documented series of grisly attacks by Ansar, including the killing of three negotiators who had been invited to attend talks with Ansar, but without weapons. Twice the meetings took place without incident.

But Ansar's three negotiators showed up at the third meeting with weapons and gunned down their unarmed counterparts, including two peshmergas and Sewket Haci Musir, a member of parliament at the time of his death.

The northeastern portion of Iraq has been controlled by the Kurds since 1991. Two competing Kurdish forces have divided the area they call Kurdistan into two parts. The Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP, controls one part and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK, controls the other.

PUK operates checkpoints in the area where Ansar is active. On Feb. 26, PUK peshmergas at the Zamaqi checkpoint stopped a Land Rover and ordered a suspicious-looking passenger to get out of the SUV and identify himself.

The passenger stepped out and detonated a bomb strapped to his chest. The bomb consisted of ball bearings encased in several pounds of TNT. The blast killed the bomber, the hapless driver who'd innocently picked him up along the roadway and the two peshmergas who had stopped the bomber.

"If Osama bin Laden is a terrorist, then Ansar are terrorists," Helkawt said. "If Ansar aren't terrorists, then neither is Osama bin Laden."

Most of the residents have fled the handful of villages occupied by Ansar, he said, including the Ansar's base, the town of Biyara. It is a small border town at the base of a pass that leads into Iran. For that reason, it is a lucrative smuggling center, and now it's under the control of Ansar.

In mid-February, Mehdi Mustafa Arif led his family of 12 from their home in Biyara by foot seven miles to the nearby town of Halabjah. They took up residence with other refugees from Biyara in a small house. Three families totaling 36 live in the small two-room house.

"They're just like the Taliban," Arif said of Ansar.

"I don't have any work here but at least I have saved my family," he added.

He spoke from the floor of their kitchen, which was cluttered with dishes and bedrolls because it also served as a bedroom, dining room and greeting room.

"I want America and England to get rid of those people," he said.