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An Islamic group with ties to al-Qaida continues to operate in northern Iraq where it receives aid from Saddam Hussein’s intelligence services, Iraqi opposition officials in Washington and London told Insight in recent interviews.

The group, called Ansar al-Islam, is led by an Iraqi Kurd named Nejmeddin Faraj Ahmad (also known as Mullah Krekar) who trained with Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

In August, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld told reporters that senior al-Qaida leaders had fled Afghanistan for Iraq, where they were being protected by Saddam. President George W. Bush warned of the dangers of Saddam giving weapons of mass destruction to al-Qaida in his State of the Union address. Secretary of State Colin Powell is expected to detail the al-Qaida/Iraq ties tomorrow at the United Nations.

Ansar al-Islam (Helpers of Islam) emerged shortly after Sept. 11 in northern Iraq and almost immediately declared war on the secular Kurdish parties opposing Saddam’s regime. The group operates two training camps and controls several villages in a pocket of Kurdish territory near Halabja along the border with Iran that quickly became a safe haven for fleeing al-Qaida fighters from Afghanistan. Estimates of the group’s armed militia range from 700 to more than 2,000.

“This is a man who trained in bin Laden camps and has clear ties to al-Qaida and the Taliban,” said Qobad Talabani, the Washington representative of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK, one of the member groups of the opposition Iraqi National Congress.

Last April, an Ansar al-Islam commando attempted to assassinate PUK Prime Minister Barham Salih and killed five of his bodyguards. Establishing Ansar al-Islam bases in Iraq “was part of a deliberate process,” Salih told an Associated Press reporter last October, “to set up alternative bases for al-Qaida away from Afghanistan.”

Krekar was arrested briefly in Amsterdam by the Netherlands police last September as he returned to Europe from Tehran. The Iranian authorities had expelled him at the request of the Iraqi opposition. Krekar flew on to Norway, which had granted him political asylum, and he remains there today.

“Krekar is still out on the streets in Norway,” Talabani told Insight. “It would be a travesty if he slipped through the cracks. He should be indicted for war crimes and terrorism.” Krekar is wanted in Jordan on charges of smuggling drugs for al-Qaida from Afghanistan, Talabani added.

The PUK revealed last year that Krekar and his group had been “experimenting” with battlefield use of sarin, a potent nerve gas, and toxins such as ricin, both of which it obtained from Iraq.

Kenneth R. Timmerman is a senior writer for Insight.

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