The Ansar al-Sunnah Army has emerged from its roots as a little known militant group in the north to become one of Iraq's deadliest terror networks, capable of carrying out dramatic...

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BAGHDAD, Iraq — The Ansar al-Sunnah Army has emerged from its roots as a little known militant group in the north to become one of Iraq’s deadliest terror networks, capable of carrying out dramatic strikes such as last week’s suicide bombing at a U.S. base that killed 22, and virtually eclipsing al-Qaida’s cell in the war-town country.

Ansar al-Sunnah is believed to be made up mainly of Iraqis, and its apparent strategy of targeting only Americans and those viewed as collaborating with them — Iraqi security forces and Kurds — may have increased their support, in contrast to other groups that have hit more clearly Iraqi civilian targets.

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Less than five months after the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime in April 2003, Ansar al-Sunnah’s first statement surfaced on the Internet, pronouncing itself “a group of jihadists, scholars, and political and military experts” dedicated to creating an Islamic state in Iraq.

The statement was signed by the group’s “emir,” or leader, the previously unknown Abu Abdullah al-Hassan Ibn Mahmoud.

Since then, it has carried out numerous bombings and attacks, particularly in northern Iraq — and shown its ruthlessness with the slaying in August of 12 kidnapped Nepalese construction workers, releasing video showing their deaths. In its deadliest operation, Ansar al-Sunnah claimed responsibility for Feb. 1 suicide bombings against two Kurdish political parties in Irbil, killing 109 people.

In the Irbil attack, the group slipped bombers into the Kurdish party offices during celebrations to set off their explosives. Tuesday’s attack on U.S. forces at Mosul showed even greater sophistication and planning: a bomber — possibly in an Iraqi military uniform — entered a dining tent on the heavily guarded American base and detonated the blast during lunch, killing 22 people, mostly American soldiers and civilians.

Now the group is warning Iraqis not to participate in crucial Jan. 30 elections, promising to attack polling stations.

But who is behind Ansar al-Sunnah and how it was formed remains a mystery. Some experts believe the group splintered from Ansar al-Islam, an al-Qaida-linked group established in September 2001.

Mohammed Salah, a Cairo-based expert on Islamic militancy, said research indicates that the Ansar al-Sunnah Army was established by a mix of various Sunni Muslim anti-occupation factions that came together after the end of the war.

They chose the name Ansar al-Sunnah (loosely translated as “supporters of the traditions of Prophet Muhammad”) to distinguish the Sunni group from Shiite militias, Salah said.

The group seeks an Islamic government and Islamic law in Iraq, stressing its opposition to democracy, which it says replaces God’s rightful rule with that of man.

“We believe democracy is an atheist call that idolizes human beings,” says a manifesto detailing Ansar al-Sunnah’s ideology.

However, Salah said the group now seems to include nationalists and other secular people opposed to the U.S. presence in Iraq who are not typical religious fundamentalists or extremists but who “chose the cover of Islam as a propaganda that sells well.”

The group’s Web site, which also has a Kurdish page, features videos of aspiring suicide bombers and footage of attacks and beheadings. Statements on the site dismiss Iraqi politicians as “American puppets and agents” and condemns “collaborators” in the U.S.-trained Iraqi army and police.

It also denounces the upcoming elections, calling on Muslims to shun the ballot boxes as “centers of atheism” and adding: “We warn everyone that the Mujahedeen will be attacking polling stations.”

In November, Ansar al-Sunnah said it collaborated in two attacks with other radical organizations — al-Qaida in Iraq, led by Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and the Islamic Army in Iraq. However, similar announcements have not been repeated since.

Still, it remains unclear whether Ansar al-Sunnah is linked to Osama bin Laden’s network, or whether it is actually competing with it.

While al-Zarqawi’s Tawhid and Jihad group in October declared allegiance to bin Laden, changing its name to al-Qaida in Iraq, no such announcement was made by Ansar al-Sunnah.

“Ansar al-Sunnah Army seems more organized and it’s generated more support than al-Qaida in Iraq,” Singapore-based terrorism expert Rohan Gunaratna said. ” … Al-Qaida’s attacks have often alienated significant support,” Gunaratna said.

With or without al-Qaida, it looks like Ansar al-Sunnah is here to stay.

“I think Ansar al-Sunnah will, as an organization, last longer and will enjoy a broader base of support than al-Qaida in Iraq,” Gunaratna said.