Saddam's son accuses Iran of backing Islamic extremists

Sunday, August 25, 2002

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- President Saddam Hussein's eldest son has accused Iran of setting up a group of Islamic militants in the Kurdish zone of northern Iraq.

Iran did not comment on the claim Saturday.

Odai Hussein said the group, "Jund al-Islam," or Soldiers of Islam, has no connection to al-Qaida, the terror group blamed for the Sept. 11 attacks.

Odai was speaking to a group of Iraqi journalists on Al-Shabab television, a channel that he owns. The interview was taped on Aug. 14, but broadcast late Friday.

The broadcast appeared to respond to this week's reports in the United States that al-Qaida fugitives from Afghanistan had found refuge in the group, "Ansar al-Islam" or Partisans of Islam, in the Kurdish zone of Iraq.

The Ansar group broke away from Jund al-Islam. U.S. officials were quoted as saying that Ansar fighters had trained in Afghanistan, where they had contact with al-Qaida, and that Ansar was harboring al-Qaida members.

It is not known why Odai spoke only of Jund al-Islam and did not mention Ansar al-Islam.

In Tehran, an Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman declined to respond to Odai's statement. It was the first time that Iraq has accused Iran of backing Jund al-Islam.

Iran has traditionally given support to the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, one of the two main groups controlling the Kurdish zone in Iraq. The PUK is fiercely opposed to the Jund and Ansar groups, seeing them as threats to its authority in the eastern half of the zone. Nine PUK fighters were killed in a firefight with Ansar militants in July.

A senior PUK official, Barham Salih, told The Associated Press this week there was no evidence of Iranian backing for Ansar.

"The Iranians are emphatic that this group is a threat to their own security," Salih said.

Turning to the allegation of al-Qaida ties, Odai said: "They (Jund al-Islam) do not have any link whatsoever with al-Qaida, and this is purely an Iranian game aimed at gaining influence in the area."

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has said there are al-Qaida members in Iraq, but he has not said where they are.

Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tareq Aziz said this week that al-Qaida elements were in the Kurdish zone, which is outside the control of the Baghdad government.

The Kurdish autonomous zone was set up under the auspices of the United States, Britain and France in 1991 after the Baghdad government brutally put down a Kurdish uprising there after its defeat in the Gulf War.

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