Down from the mountains to die

Three Islamist zealots descend a mountain in a driving rainstorm to kill their Kurdish enemies -- and themselves.

Published March 28, 2003 8:39PM (EST)

As a thousand U.S. paratroopers landed in northern Iraq to open a new front in the war, fighting on another front is going on near the eastern border with Iran. The fighting in the east evokes combat in Afghanistan, with suicide attacks and airstrikes.

From the crest of a hill in Halabja, not far from the Iranian border, a Kurdish commander named Rakhman said, "Two days ago, three men came down out of the mountains around 9 o'clock at night and attacked the peshmerga [Kurdish fighters] with hand grenades. One soldier was killed and there were five injured." Rakhman pointed out a line of trees where the attackers hid until they were ready to attack his men, then gestured at a house where his peshmerga were resting after an evening meal. "One went into the house and threw a grenade and then the men killed him. Two others came later, but the peshmerga were ready." It was a story of zealots who had come on foot down from a high mountain redoubt in a driving rainstorm to carry out a suicide mission.

The attackers were not members of Iraq's army, the longtime enemy of the Kurds; they were members of Ansar al Islam, an Islamist group linked to al-Qaida that seeks to establish an Islamic state in a network of villages in the mountainous region of Kurdistan. The militant Islamists are estimated to be about 650 strong, with as many as 150 so-called Afghan Arabs who had trained in Afghanistan.

Commander Rakhman went on to describe how the Ansar members made their own grenades by taking the fragmentation material out of powerful mines, and then reworking them so they could be thrown. In the mountains, mines are not in short supply. This region of Kurdistan has been fought over intermittently for two decades, and mines of all varieties are sown in the steep hillsides where shepherds tend their flocks. Some date from the eight-year-long Iran-Iraq war, others from the Anfal campaign in which Saddam tried to exterminate and uproot a rebellious Kurdish population. Fields are abloom with metal warning signs.

The area around Halabja is no stranger to Ansar attacks. In December of last year, members of the group took a peshmerga bunker by surprise in the early morning and killed at least 40 soldiers, decapitating the bodies. In a macabre public relations move, a videotape of the attack and its aftermath soon appeared in the Halabja bazaar. Ansar makes much of its taped material available on the Internet and uses the medium to boast of its victories.

Ansar al Islam, like the Taliban, seeks to create a severe Islamic state governed by sharia law. Women are not allowed to work or attend school and must remain covered when not in the confines of the home. Music is forbidden, and the list of restrictions and prohibitions goes on. The peshmerga say that they can prove just by looking at the weapons that Iran and the government of Saddam Hussein are both supporting Ansar. "The Kalashnikovs have a plate that says where they are made. We capture guns that have 'Made in Iran' and 'Made in Iraq' stamped on them," Commander Rakhman said. Other news reports cite similar evidence for Iraqi and Iranian patronage for Ansar.

Shortly after the Taliban regime collapsed, the New York Times discovered documents in a former al-Qaida guesthouse in Kabul that listed the names of the volunteers who had trained in Afghanistan. Names of Kurdish men appeared on the list.

As the war on Iraq enters its second week, the balance of power in the north has tipped decidedly in favor of the Kurdish forces. As part of the military anti-terror campaign, U.S. aircraft bombed Anfal villages and bunkers on Saturday and Sunday, causing a wave of refugees to come down from the mountains to get away from the attacks. Some of those on the road in the past few days belong to Islamic parties with no formal connection to Ansar.

Ansar did not wait long to respond to the U.S. and Kurdish attacks. Within a day of the U.S. actions, Paul Moran, an Australian cameraman, was killed by a suicide bomber in a taxi as he was filming at a checkpoint near Halabja. A Kurdish fighter and a civilian were also killed.

According to a report in the Australian newspaper, the suicide bomber deliberately chose Moran as a target, gesturing to the sandy-haired cameraman to come closer, then stopping the taxi and detonating the bomb, killing him instantly. The incident, along with the attacks on the peshmerga, seem to show that Ansar's response to the American airstrikes is a suicide attack strategy targeting civilians, Kurdish military forces and journalists.

The airstrikes have weakened Ansar and forced its members to retreat into the mountains. "We keep hitting their positions with our guns. Last week they used to fire back, but now we hear nothing," said one young fighter. The sounds of peshmerga artillery firing toward the mountains went on all afternoon.

I'm headed back toward Arbil tomorrow to see what's going on with the American troops who just parachuted into the country. It's strange, and we could be wrong, but it seems like they dropped in and "secured" an airfield that was in friendly territory. Everyone here thinks they could have just landed the plane on the airstrip and walked off.

By Phillip Robertson

Phillip Robertson is reporting from Iraq for Salon.

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Iran Iraq Iraq War Middle East