US forces in Iraq captured No. 3 figure in Ansar al-Islam terror group

Tuesday, October 14th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ U.S. forces in Iraq have captured a senior member of Ansar al-Islam, an extremist group suspected of having ties to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network, a senior U.S. defense official said Tuesday.

The capture of Aso Hawleri late last week in the northern city of Mosul has not been public announced. He was taken into custody by soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division, said the defense official, who discussed the matter on condition of anonymity.

No other details were immediately available.

The official said Hawleri is thought to be the third-ranking official in Ansar al-Islam, most of whose leaders were believed to have fled their stronghold in northern Iraq before U.S. forces invaded in March. U.S. and Kurdish forces destroyed the group's main base in the early weeks of the war.

Ansar had taken control of a slice of the Kurdish-controlled area near the Iranian border, enforcing a version of Islam only slightly less stringent than the Taliban in Afghanistan. Their mountain strongholds were in an area not controlled by Iraqi government forces.

The Kurdish-Arab extremist group carried out suicide bombings, car bombs, assassinations and raids on militiamen and politicians of the secular Kurdish government, killing scores of people over the last two years.

U.S. officials say Ansar sent about a dozen people through al-Qaida camps in 1999 and 2000 and experimented with biotoxin ricin in 2002.

In late August, Gen. John Abizaid, commander of all forces in Iraq, told reporters that elements of Ansar al-Islam had migrated south into the Baghdad area, presenting an increased terrorist threat.

It remains unclear whether Ansar has played a role in any of the recent terror-style bombings in Iraq, including the Aug. 19 bombing of the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad that killed 22 people.

Ansar's top leader, Mullah Krekar, was taken into custody in the Netherlands in September 2001 and is now in Norweigan custody, according to U.S. officials.