They considered themselves the true believers of the faith. But now that the Ansar al Islam militants are gone, the Kurdish villagers who lived among them in northern Iraq say they were nothing but fanatics.
"How dare they call us infidels! If you say 'There is no god but God and Mohammed is his prophet,' then you are a Muslim," said Osman Wahab, 65, freely puffing on a cigarette for the first time in three years.
In the village of Biyara nestled in the mountains near the Iranian border in Iraqi Kurdistan, men were busy this weekend shaving their beards and smoking-reveling in their new freedom. A woman stood in the center of town and tore off her enveloping black abaya. She tossed her hair in the sun for a moment, smiling broadly, before donning a simple headscarf.
At least 700 Ansar militants had established Taliban-like restrictions on about 30 villages here, forcing the local residents to practice a narrow interpretation of Islam that was alien to the moderate Muslim traditions practiced among most Kurds. "They are al Qaeda," said Commander Ghafur Darwish, sunning himself on a roof after his pesh merga soldiers retook control of Biyara. "Ansar was using Islam as a cover. They are terrorists."
Ansar's leaders praised Osama bin Laden and sheltered his so-called mujahideen, or holy warriors, that were run out of Afghanistan last year, so it seemed only a matter of time before America took notice. In February, Ansar was added to the U.S. list of terrorist groups, and in the following month U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell told the United Nations Security Council that Ansar's ties to Al Qaeda and Baghdad were part of the justification for a war against Iraq.
America was expected to lead an attack on Ansar along with several thousand Kurdish soldiers, to mop up this terrorist threat before opening the northern front of the war. Finally the fight began late last week, and within days most of the Ansar fighters had fled to Iran or were killed. Some snuck across the border with the help of smugglers, but Iranian authorities, once thought to be Ansar's main benefactors, are now detaining more than 100, including four leaders, Kurdish officials say.
Wahab lost his house and two shops in the recent air strikes, but says it was worth it to be rid of Ansar. "We thank God they are gone," he said. "Even having nothing is better than living with Ansar. Now we are free."
For several years Ansar had fought to overthrow the secular Kurdish government via unsuccessful assassination attempts on its leaders and sometimes deadly artillery and mortar attacks on pesh merga soldiers. Their tactics were brutal-Kurdish soldiers who surrendered or were captured were summarily executed, their bodies mutilated and displayed on the Ansar web site and video tapes, and left on the side of the road in warning.
Ansar killed an Australian journalist two weeks ago in a suicide bombing attack, but most of their victims have been other Muslims. Islamic scholars generally agree that both suicide attacks and war against other Muslims is forbidden under Islam.
In fact, most of Ansar's precepts are unrecognizable to the average Muslim. Pilgrims from as far away as Turkey and Jordan had visited the graves of the Muslim leader Neqishbandi buried in Biyara 300 years ago. But the Ansar fighters considered such devotion to be apostasy, and paved over the graves with concrete under their new mosque.
Even after American and Kurdish agents swept the grounds, evidence remained in their Biyara headquarters that Ansar spent as much time killing as they did praying. Among the ruins of the mosque, scattered among torn pages of the Qur'an and broken turquoise tiles, were more sinister items-two rocket propelled grenade launchers, green plastic canisters of gunpowder, detonators, and paraphernalia for underground operations: forged identity cards and spare license plates. In one training manual for the "Islamic Military/Iraqi Military," hand-drawn illustrations of TNT explosives are followed on the next page with guidelines for proper prayer.
Photocopies of a magazine cover featuring a suicide bomber who killed 19 U.S. military in 1996 at the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia were annotated with extra biographical details. Ansar fighters apparently idolized such figures-half a dozen suicide belts used to carry explosives were left behind as Ansar fled into the mountains toward Iran.
Islam means "peace," but Ansar is more interested in making war on those who don't think as they do. A poem handwritten in Arabic by a Kurdish Ansar member titled "Don't Dream of Peace" ends with these words: "Pick up the landmines, leave the chairs for those who want them. Then you will write with your blood-Long live Islam!"
One photo found in the security building in Biyara shows Ansar leader Mullah Krekar, now living in Norway as a political refugee, and another unidentified fighter. Who was Krekar standing next to before the photo was ripped in two? If America is to be believed, it could have been Osama bin Laden himself.
The accusations of their affiliation appear to be well-founded, judging by documents left in Ansar's wake. A memo inside an Ansar bunker detailed religious justifications for the events of Sept. 11, 2001. A copy found in an Ansar office of a book written by Al Qaeda mastermind Ayman al Zawahiri said his "blessed attacks" on New York and Washington were just the kernel of his global jihad, or holy war.
"They were very angry people, and now we thank God that they are gone," said Astera Ali, 50. She fled Biyara with her daughter and son two years ago to the nearby city of Halabja because of Ansar. "I saw that when Ansar came, they were very different from the real Islam."
All across the territory once held by Ansar al Islam, Kurds were busy reclaiming their religion. At Sergat, the site identified by Colin Powell as a chemical weapons and terrorist training facility, Kurdish soldiers spray painted the initials for the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan on the dome of a mosque. In the Biyara prison, others were gathering up green leather-bound Qurans for their own use.
Tariq Said Sadiq, 25, a pesh merga soldier, walked through the ruins of Ansar's mosque headquarters in disgust. "I graduated from an institute of Islamic law. These people were not Islamic, they were against Islamic principles. Islam is for peace, for health, for faith, not for killing."