Map courtesy of the Christian Science Monitor
As the world looks to the United Nations today, where Hans Blix will deliver his “no smoking gun, we need more time” report on Iraq’s weapons program, William Safire, in today’s New York Times, tries once again to link Iraq and al Qa’ida by pointing to the 600 Ansar al-Islam fighters based in the far southeast part of Iraqi Kurdistan. But what he neglects to mention is that Ansar is operating in an region under which Saddam doesn’t have control — hardly a “haven” since the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan is currently at war with the insurgents.
No doubt Saddam is providing funding to the group in an effort to destabilze Iraqi Kurdistan. But other countries are funding the group, including Iran and Turkey. The Kurds realize that their neighbors have no interest in seeing an independent Kurdistan and will support any group that might thwart those ambitions.
The Kurds, among which Safire apparently has sources, have been trying to convince anyone who will listen that Ansar is affiliated with al Qai’da. While I interviewed him last summer, Faraidoon Abdul Qisadir, the PUK Minister of the Interior, showed me a note — in Kurdish or Arabic, I’m not sure — that he said proved the group was getting funding from Baghdad. He wouldn’t let me make a copy of the note so I could get it independently translated, however, so there’s no way I could have verified its content.
(Also during the meeting, an aide brought him another note that he said a car bomb, likely headed for my hotel, exploded on a hill outside Suleimaniya. Again, I was unable to verify this, but I did see a smoke plume rising from a hill outside the city after the interview. I had been in Halabja, near Ansar territory, just the day before and Qisadir speculated that Ansar agents had seen me. Who knows?)
Safire has tried this linkage before, with his assertions — since disproved by Czech authorities — that hijacker Mohammed Atta met with Iraqi agents in Prague prior to the Sept. 11 attacks. Safire has never admitted this error.
Look, there is little doubt that Ansar has ties to al Qa’ida. And there is little doubt they are getting funding and weapons from Saddam. At the same time, however, because they are operating in an area that has been freed of Baghdad’s influence I find it hard to believe that they are operating with Saddam’s “blessing.” More likely, Tehran is helping them more than Baghdad is, and the Iraqi president is taking advantage of their presence to keep the Kurds off balance. Getting money from both Saddam and al Qa’ida does not logically lead to a linkage between Iraq and Osama bin Laden. Ansar wants to destroy the Kurdish secular government and set up an Islamic state under shar’ia, the harsh Islamic law of the Taliban. Baghdad, however, is a secular gangster regime. If Ansar were ever to gain control of Iraqi Kurdistan — an impossible dream for the insurgents — Baghdad would immediately launch a campaign to crush the Islamists, who have no intention of co-existing peacefully with Saddam. I might add, too, that if the above scenario were to come to pass, the United States would be glad to see Saddam wipe them out.
Saddam is helping Ansar because of the old Arabic saying, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Were Ansar in power in Iraqi Kurdistan, the United States would rightly see them as an enemy. And you can imagine a set of very interesting allies.