Islamists flex their muscles in Kurdistan: Hugh Pope visits the still devastated Iraqi Kurdish town of Halabja in the company of its new rulers

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THE midday sun beat down on the Islamic Kurds' front line post outside Halabja, a strategic mound in a wide, swampy valley close to the Iraqi border with Iran. Tiny flies bit hard. Little else moved in the intense heat.

The fighters of the Islamic Movement of Kurdistan did not drop their guard. They unslung their weapons and clambered suspiciously down to the four-wheel drive vehicles bringing the first foreign visitors since they captured the area in May's inter-Kurdish fighting.

The Islamists had reason to be wary. Their conquest of the towns of Halabja, Penjwin, Qaladiza and a strip along the eastern border with Iran has changed the balance of power in Iraqi Kurdistan, which has been dominated by the two parties of Massoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani.

Mr Talabani's people have cried foul as the Islamists advance into their territory. The Islamists are openly allied with Mr Barzani, and Mr Talabani sees a plot by Iran. But whoever is behind their success, the Islamists, driven out of most of Iraqi Kurdistan during fighting with Mr Talabani last December, have returned in force.

The new Islamic man on view in Halabja showed a determination and discipline rarely present among Kurdish groups. Most cultivated fierce expressions, none had washed for weeks and all had let their beards grow. Perhaps to underline that they were outside the traditional framework, few wore Kurdish pushi turbans, although the Kurdish baggy khaki trousers were still de rigueur.

'Stop. You cannot pass,' the chief of the checkpoint ordered, a figure who, but for his Kalashnikov, could have stepped from a medieval miniature. Special passes counted for little. Nor did the presence of the new mediators of Iraqi Kurdistan conflict, the coalition of anti-Saddam forces, the Iraqi National Congress (INC).

An INC escort, Captain Walid, a Shia Muslim Arab army defector from Karbala, put on dark glasses and tried to reason. Quick to smile and baby-faced, he was probably the first to dare to wear Iraqi uniform this far from Baghdad since the Gulf war.

Soon Captain Walid disappeared to the Islamist headquarters in a cloud of dust. Our party was left with the checkpoint, the flies and an unexploded artillery shell that the fighters rocked to and fro absentmindedly when conversation ran out.

Were the Islamists backed by Iran? Not at all, they insisted. Where did they get their ammunition? Oh, 'we bought it from the PKK (Marxist Kurdish rebels against Turkey). They have more than they can use.' One opened up his Kalashnikov magazine to show the worn- out brass on his ageing cartridge cases.

There was no sign of Iranians or the Islamic Republic when we reached Halabja accompanied by an Islamist Toyota battlewagon. Captain Walid whispered triumphantly: 'they're letting us through, but they ask us to be quick because they are about to attack down the road.'

The local leader of the Islamist movement, Mohammed Omar Abdul-Aziz, acknowledged some links in Iran but 'only through geographical circumstances . . . there are no Revolutionary Guards. They should give evidence, find a head, a boot or a corpse.'

He took his visitors behind the wrecked building that served as his headquarters to show off a stack of old Iraqi army Katyusha multiple rocket launchers baking in the sun.

As for allegations of purges in May's fighting, neither side had much to boast about during their occupations of Halabja. Shops were still closed. The place seemed empty and unhappy, even allowing for the wholescale destruction still unrepaired from the Iran-Iraq war and the notorious Iraqi chemical bombing of the town in March 1988 in which 5,000 people were killed.

'Now we are at the mercy of political parties. Anyone who likes problems goes to the front. If they don't, they work like me,' shrugged a council worker, setting out in the noonday sun on the unlikely task of distributing 15 dinar (10p) per month electricity bills through a jungle of broken concrete and reinforcing rods.

The Islamists insist they are not interfering in the moral life of the town and hint that their support comes from the likes of Saudi Arabia. Mr Barzani's group says it is better to include the Islamists in Iraqi Kurdistan's political processes rather than push them into the arms of outsiders.

A watchmender in Halabja seemed to be behaving oddly as he insisted that he was absolutely happy with Islamist rule. As he spoke, his eyes did not move once. Freedom of speech has its limits when you have three unsmiling Islamist gunmen at your back.

(Photographs omitted)