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Thursday, November 06, 2003

Why did we let so many of the Ansar Al Islam terrorists get away ?

Now I know of Ansar Al Islam largely in the context of Bush administration spin efforts. To claim that Saddam Hussein was linked to Al Qaeda, they argued and argue that Ansar Al Islam, which is highly violent and clearly linked to Al Qaeda, was based in Iraq. They fail to note that it was based in Iraqi Kurdistan outside of the area controlled by the Hussein regime.

I decided I ought to learn more, because of the increasing belief that Ansar Al Islam is currently a huge problem for the USA. The Washington Post reports, among other things, that

“"We believe that the fighters in Iraq belong to the organization of al-Qaida and Ansar al-Islam," Talabani said. "We have a plan to fight those."
Washington says Ansar al-Islam is linked to al-Qaida, and some U.S. officials say it represents the main organized adversary to American forces in Iraq.”

Jalal Talabani holds the rotating presidency of the Iraqi Governing Council and the PUK which has been fighting Ansar Al Islam since September 23 2001 (soon after Ansar Al Islam appeared).

Ansar Al Islam does not seem to have been a major factor in the Bush administrations decision to invade Iraq. A Christian Science Monitor article reporting the existence of the group says “With the US dedicated to rooting out Al Qaeda's influence wherever it surfaces in the world, a group of Islamic extremists in northern Iraq with even loose ties to Al Qaeda could complicate further any Iraq intervention. Already the US is in a delicate dance with allies over how to handle Iraq, with many warning that the US must consider the implications of possible instability that a move to topple Hussein could cause.
The emergence of the group comes as the US ramps up pressure on the Hussein regime in Iraq over weapons development. In a White House press conference on Wednesday, President Bush said Hussein "is a problem, and we're going to deal with him."
The State Department did not have extensive information on Ansar al-Islam, but one official there said he was aware of its existence and connection to Al Qaeda.”

This supports the suspicion that the claims about Ansar Al Islam were made to convince others to support a decision to invade Iraq that had been made on other grounds. However, I am writing this post, because I suspect that the Bush administration’s focus on Saddam Hussein caused them to consider the fight against Ansar Al Islam a side show, a distraction from the main issue. I think these priorities may have led to decisions which enabled most (almost all) of the Ansar Al Islam militants to avoid capture (or death) during the period of major armed conflict. If they are, indeed, the main factor in the current armed conflict, this would have been a terrible mistake.
How and when did they get away ?. They were based on the Iraq-Iran border. When joint US PUK forces over ran their camp on (March 30) many were gone, presumably to Iran.

On March 22 2003 (day 3 of the war no ?) Kevin Sites of Cnn reported as follows
“Now on another flank – the border with Iran and Iraq – Ansar al-Islam is the fundamentalist group, the "mini-Taliban" as some people have called them, that U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell has linked ... with Saddam Hussein. He says that this is his al Qaeda connection. .... Saddam Hussein's connection to the al Qaeda is with Ansar al-Islam. Now they're located in Kurdish territory, so it was an interesting observation that he made.
And the U.S. military must think so as well. They fired apparently, according to our sources here, 30 cruise missiles at Ansar al-Islam locations along that border with Iran and Iraq. Now those targets may have softened up a little bit and PUK sources – Patriotic Union of Kurdistan sources – tell us they may now attack Ansar al-Islam, either today or tomorrow.”
Right we’ll get around to that soon today or tomorrow. Notice this is presented as a PUK job without US special forces on the ground.
The attack didn’t come March 22 or 23. The Washington Post reports the battle beginning March 28 2003 (day 9 ) with US special forces assisting/advising the PUK forces.
According to ABC news The Ansar base was secured March 30 (day 11)
notice “Intelligence officials were convinced they would find the toxin known as ricin, which is deadlier than cyanide, or the apparatus to make chemicals at the facility. They were so concerned about the facility that plans were drawn up to attack it long before the war, although they were not carried out. “
Who decided that ?
there is a reference (past tense) in General Franks’ March 30 briefing

Now finally past tense of the attack in CNN on APRIL 1 2003 (a bit slow for CNN no)

“Unavoidable damage, say Kurdish officials on the ground, who say they had to root out this terrorist stronghold throughout the 250-square mile area, well dug-in, well-entrenched.
There was ferocious fighting for 36 hours. Now the Kurdish fighters themselves, about 10,000 of them, linked for the first time in the battlefield with U.S. special forces. “
Notice that the discussion is about Ricin not how many terrorists got away. No prisoners were taken (US soldiers reported that Ansar fighters killed themselves). No bodies were counted either (tacky I know but It would be nice to know what fraction of the approximately 700 slipped away say across the border into Iran.

Now I ask why wasn’t an assault on Ansar Al Islam the first step of the war in Iraq. In fact, I wonder why it wasn’t the first and last step. Consider what Romesh Ratnesar of CNN had to say over a year ago August 26 2002 proving the ABC claim that there were plans to attack Ansar Al Islam long before March 20 2003
“Other Pentagon aides leaked word that the Administration had recently considered but decided against sending commandos into Kurdish-dominated northern Iraq to knock out a clandestine chemical-weapons lab allegedly run by Ansar al-Islam, a tiny fundamentalist rebel group whose ranks are reportedly swelling with al-Qaeda fighters fleeing Afghanistan.
For those looking to promote a U.S. invasion of Iraq, such assorted morsels of intelligence are tantalizing hints of a conspiracy.”
Notice Ratnesar’s view that, to the Bush administration hawks, actually doing something about Ansar al Islam, is a minor aspect of the main effort to use the existence of Ansar Al Islam to convince Bush to invade Iraq. Notice also that someone decided not to attack Ansar Al Islam in 2002.
It seems to me that US forces in Iraq are in trouble because the Bush administration did not let minor objectives like catching terrorists by surprise get in the way of its “war on terrorism”.

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