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Last Updated: Friday, 27 February, 2004, 13:38 GMT
On the trail of the Ansar
By Barbara Plett
In Sargat, north-east Iraq

Kurds mourning the victims of suicide bombers
A hundred people were killed in attacks on Kurdish political parties

In the bowl of the mountain, at the north-eastern edge of Iraq, Kurdish Peshmerga soldiers guard their ground.

For years, this guerrilla army fought against Saddam Hussein. Now it is facing a different enemy.

"We need to protect ourselves against terror," says the commander, Assi Mohammed Ali, "from the people who are carrying out the explosions."

Weapons at the ready, these mountain fighters say the terror is Ansar al-Islam, a radical Islamic movement they drove out one year ago.

Kurdish and American officials insist it is linked to al-Qaeda, although they have not produced hard evidence.

But the fiercely pious group did once rule this remote border region.

A winding dirt road leads to the heart of Ansar al-Islam territory, south-east of the Kurdish city of Suleimaniya.

It set up here a few years ago, a splinter from the Kurdish Islamic movement.

This was a perfect spot for a fiefdom: a no man's land squatting on the border where Iraq and Iran meet, an area easy to penetrate, easy to defend.

The village of Sargat is next to Ansar's old military base, it looks as if it has been chiselled into the mountain.

The houses are made of stones piled on top of each other, green fields and stone fences descend into the valley.

These isolated farmers seem to have been abandoned by any government authority.

Only four of the 40 houses have running water, none have electricity.

The villagers are happy to get visitors, and happy to be rid of their dogmatic guardians.

"They didn't allow women to go out without headscarves," said the school teacher, Bourhan Raouf.

"And they didn't allow men and women to be together at parties. Also they wouldn't let anyone have a satellite dish, or sing and listen to music."

"People here didn't want to make problems for themselves.

"They tried to obey so [the Ansar members] wouldn't use force, because they would do what they wanted."

Slipping in

One of the first acts of the American invasion was to destroy Ansar al-Islam's base.

It was a bloody battle, says our guide Amina Mohammed Osman.

She believes foreign and Arab fighters were among the Ansar.

"Exactly here in this area I saw lots of bodies of the Ansar," she says.

"They were distributed in the field and most of them were wearing black clothes. They were left out three or four days.

"Since the families didn't come to take them, this means they are not from this area. Also, I didn't see any identity cards in the Kurdish language."

Iraq's Kurdish community
Kurds want an independent homeland to be established

The Peshmerga are determined to prevent surviving Ansar fighters from infiltrating across the border.

But some may already have slipped in.

This month, 100 people were killed in attacks on Kurdish political party offices in northern Iraq.

"I think they are the same people who lived here and who we fought," says the commander, Assi Mohammed Ali.

"Because we know some of them escaped."

So the war is over, but the fight for Iraq's future goes on.

Maybe Ansar al-Islam is part of the al-Qaeda network, as the Americans allege.

For now only one thing is clear: a year after Ansar fighters lay unburied in the mountains, Islamic militants like them are very much alive in Iraq.



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