US 'Iraq Poison Factory' Claim
- Sorry Truth Behind The US 'Iraq Poison Factory' Claim
The Observer - UK
By Luke Harding reports from the terrorist camp in northern Iraq
named by Colin Powell as a centre of the al-Qaeda international
If Colin Powell were to visit the shabby military compound at the
foot of a large snow-covered mountain, he might be in for an
unpleasant surprise. The US Secretary of State last week confidently
described the compound in north-eastern Iraq - run by an Islamic
terrorist group Ansar al-Islam - as a 'terrorist chemicals and
poisons factory.' Yesterday, however, it emerged that the terrorist
factory was nothing of the kind - more a dilapidated collection of
concrete outbuildings at the foot of a grassy sloping hill. Behind
the barbed wire, and a courtyard strewn with broken rocket parts, are
a few empty concrete houses. There is a bakery. There is no sign of
chemical weapons anywhere - only the smell of paraffin and vegetable
ghee used for cooking.
In the kitchen, I discovered some chopped up tomatoes but not much
else. The cook had left his Kalashnikov propped neatly against the
Ansar al Islam - the Islamic group that uses the compound identified
by Powell as a military HQ to launch murderous attacks against
secular Kurdish opponents - yesterday invited me and several other
foreign journalists into their territory for the first time.
'We are just a group of Muslims trying to do our duty,' Mohammad
Hasan, spokesman for Ansar al-Islam, explained. 'We don't have any
drugs for our fighters. We don't even have any aspirin. How can we
produce any chemicals or weapons of mass destruction?' he asked.
The radical terrorist group controls a tiny mountainous chunk of
Kurdistan, the self-rule enclave of northern Iraq. Over the past
year Ansar's fighters have been at war with the Kurdish secular
parties who control the rest of the area. Every afternoon both sides
mortar each other across a dazzling landscape of mountain and
shimmering green pasture. Until last week this was an obscure and
But last Wednesday Powell suggested that the 500-strong band of Ansar
fighters had links with both al-Qaeda and Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
They were, he hinted, a global menace - and more than that they were
the elusive link between Osama bin Laden and Iraq.
This is clearly little more than cheap hyperbole. Yesterday Hassan
took the unprecedented step of inviting journalists into what was
previously forbidden territory in an almost certainly doomed attempt
to prevent an American missile strike once the war with Iraq kicks
off. Ali Bapir, a warlord in the neighbouring town of Khormal, leant
us several fighters armed with machine guns and we set off.
We drove past an Ansar checkpoint, marked with a black flag and the
Islamic militia's logo - the Koran, a sheaf of wheat and a sword. We
kept going. The landscape was littered with the ruins of demolished
houses, destroyed during Saddam's infamous Anfal campaign against the
Kurds in 1988. At the corner of the valley we passed a pink mosque,
with sandbagging on the roof. Washing hung from a courtyard. A group
of Ansar fighters - in green military fatigues - smiled and waved us
Several of their comrades were in the graveyard across the road.
There were numerous fresh plots, each marked with a black flag.
After 20 minutes' drive along a twisting mountain track we arrived in
Serget - the village identified from space by American satellite as a
haven of terrorist activity.
Yesterday, however, Hassan was at pains to deny any link with al-
Qaeda. 'All we are trying to do is fulfil the prophet's goals,' he
said. 'Read the Koran and you'll understand.'
Senior officials from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan - the party
with which Ansar is at war - insist that the Islamic guerrillas based
in the village have been experimenting with poisons. They have
smeared a crude form of cyanide on door handles. They had even tried
it out on several farm animals, including sheep and donkeys, they
claim. The guerrillas have also managed to construct
a .5kg 'chemical' bomb designed to explode and kill anyone within a
50-metre radius, Kurdish intelligence sources say.
Hassan yesterday dismissed all these allegations as 'lies'. 'We
don't have any chemical weapons. As you can see this is an isolated
place,' Ayub Khadir, another fighter, with a bushy pirate beard and
blue turban, said. And yet, despite the fact there appeared to be no
evidence of chemical experimentation, Ansar's complex was lavish for
an organisation that purports to be made up merely of simple
Muslims. Concealed in a concrete bunker, we discovered a
sophisticated television studio, complete with cameras, editing
equipment and a scanner.
In a neighbouring room were several computers, beneath shelves full of
videotapes. A banner written in Arabic proclaims: 'Those who
believe in Islam will be rewarded.'
Until recently Ansar had its own website where the faithful could log
on to footage of Ansar guerrillas in battle. In small concrete
bunkers the fighters operated their own radio station, Radio Jihad.
The announcer had clearly been sitting on an empty box of
explosives. Hassan denied yesterday that his revolutionary group
received any funding from Baghdad or from Iran, a short hike away
over the mountains.
'If Colin Powell were to come here he would see that we have nothing
to hide,' he said. But Ansar's sources of funding remain mysterious -
and their real purpose tantalisingly unclear. 'All Ansar fighters
are from Iraq,' Hassan said. 'Iraq is one of the richest countries
in the world. Our fighters have brought their own things with them.'
But while they appear to pose no real threat to Washington or London,
Ansar's fighters are a brutal bunch. They have so far killed more
than 800 opposition Kurdish fighters. They have shot dead several
civilians. They have even tried - last April - to assassinate the
Prime Minister of the neighbouring town of Sulamaniyah, the mild-
mannered Dr Barham Salih. The plot went wrong and two of the
assassins were shot dead. A third is in prison. 'We are fed up with
them. We wish they would go away,' one villager, who refused to be
The militia's weapons had been inherited, captured from their enemies
or bought from smugglers, Hassan said. Kurdish intelligence sources
insist that there is 'solid and tangible proof' linking Ansar both to
Iraqi intelligence agents and to al-Qaeda. They say that a group of
fighters visited Afghanistan twice before the fall of the Taliban and
met Abu Hafs, one of bin Laden's key lieutenants.
Hassan yesterday refused to say how many fighters were holed up in the
three villages and one mountain valley under Ansar's control ('It's a
military secret,' he said) and claimed - implausibly - that none of
his men were Arab volunteers come to fight jihad in Iraq.
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