Officials: Iraqi cult planned attack on top Shiite clergy
Tuesday, January 30, 2007
BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Iraq's army said Monday it killed the leader of a heavily armed cult of messianic Shiites in a fierce gunbattle aimed at foiling an attack on leading Shiite clerics and pilgrims in the city of Najaf on the holiest day of the Shiite calendar.
Senior Iraqi security officers said three gunmen of "the Soldiers of Heaven" cult were captured in Najaf after renting a hotel room in front of the office of Iraq's most senior Shiite spiritual leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, with plans to attack it.
The 24-hour battle was ultimately won by Iraqi troops supported by U.S. and British jets and American ground forces. But the ability of a splinter group little known in Iraq to rally hundreds of heavily armed fighters was a reminder of the potential for chaos and havoc emerging seemingly out of nowhere.
Members of the group, which included women and children, planned to disguise themselves as pilgrims and kill as many leading clerics as possible, said Maj. Gen. Othman al-Ghanemi, the Iraqi commander in charge of the Najaf region.
The cult's leader, wearing jeans, a coat and a hat and carrying two pistols, was among those who died in the battle, al-Ghanemi said. Although he went by several aliases, he was identified as Dia Abdul Zahra Kadim, 37, from Hillah, south of Baghdad, according to Abdul-Hussein Abtan, deputy governor of Najaf. Kadim had been detained twice in the past few years, Abtan said.
The U.S. military said Iraqi security forces were sent to the area Sunday after receiving a tip that gunmen were joining pilgrims headed to Najaf for Ashoura, a commemoration of the 7th-century death of Imam Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad. The major religious festival culminates on Tuesday.
The gunmen had put up tents in fields lined with date palm groves surrounding Najaf, 100 miles south of the capital. They planned to launch their attack Monday night when Ashoura celebrations would be getting under way, the Iraqi security officers told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to disclose the information.
In the battle to foil the attack on the pilgrims, Iraqi and U.S. forces faced off against more than 200 gunmen with small arms fire, rocket-propelled grenades and hand grenades, the U.S. military said. The battle took place about 12 miles northeast of Najaf.
The American military said U.S. air power was called in after the Iraqis faced fierce resistance. American ground forces were also deployed after small arms fire downed a U.S. helicopter, killing two soldiers.
U.S. and British jets played a major role in the fighting, dropping 500-pound bombs on the militants' positions, but President Bush said the battle was an indication that Iraqis were beginning to take control.
"My first reaction on this report from the battlefield is that the Iraqis are beginning to show me something," Bush told National Public Radio on Monday.
The U.S. military said more than 100 gunmen were captured but it did not say how many were killed. Iraqi defense officials, by contrast, said 200 militants were killed, 60 wounded and at least 120 captured.
"It seems most likely that this was Shiite-on-Shiite violence, with millenarian cultists making an attempt to march on Najaf during the chaos of the ritual season of Muharram," Juan Cole, an Islamic scholar at the University of Michigan, said on his Web site. "The dangers of Shiite-on-Shiite violence in Iraq are substantial, as this episode demonstrated."
But Iraqi officials said Sunni extremists and Saddam Hussein loyalists were helping the cult in their bid to ambush Shiite worshippers.
"We have information from our intelligence sources that indicated the leader of this group had links with the former regime elements since 1993," said Ahmed al-Fatlawi said, a member of the Najaf provincial council.
In addition to Iraqi Shiites, the gunmen included Sunnis and foreigners, according to al-Fatlawi. Other Najaf government officials said Afghans, Saudis and even a Sudanese were among the dead.
Al-Ghanemi said the area where the men were staying was once run by Saddam's al-Quds Army, a military organization the late president established in the 1990s.
Abtan told Iraqi state television that the group had developed a military structure, acquiring the heavy arms and digging trenches in preparation for battle.
"What we want to know is where they bought all these weapons?" al-Ghanemi said, adding that the army seized some 500 automatic rifles in addition to mortars, heavy machine guns and Russian-made Katyusha rockets in what amounted to a major test for Iraq's new military as it works toward taking over responsibility for security from U.S.-led forces.
Al-Ghanemi said the group -- called the Jund al-Samaa, or Soldiers of Heaven -- is considered heretical by mainstream Shiite clerics and had been planning for months to attack Najaf during the Ashoura ceremonies.
Imam Hussein died in the battle of Karbala in A.D. 680. The battle cemented a schism in Islam between Shiites and Sunnis, a division that has spiraled in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 and in particular since the Feb. 22, 2006 bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra.
The Ashoura festival includes processions and ceremonies, including self-flagellation, in a show of grief to mark Hussein's death in battle.
The planned attack on Najaf was an attempt by the cult to force the return of the "hidden imam," a 9th-century saint who Shiites believe will return to bring peace and justice to the world, according to al-Fatlawi.
The gunmen planned to distribute leaflets in Najaf saying that the hidden imam will appear again, al-Ghanemi said. In the tents outside Najaf, troops found pamphlets titled "Heaven's Judge," according to the senior Iraqi security officers.
Members had gathered on a farm to prepare to launch their attack, Abtan said. They used date-palm groves as cover, forcing some farmers at gunpoint to help them, said al-Fatlawi. Other officials in Najaf said Saddam loyalists bought the groves six months ago.
Abtan said they planned first to occupy a major mosque in Najaf, then bombard the police stations and kill the religious leaders.
"They intended to occupy Najaf, then topple the Iraqi government and kill all the great religious leaders," he said.
Some of the gunmen brought their families with them in order to make it easier to enter the city, al-Fatlawi said. "The women have been detained," al-Fatlawi said.
Abtan said most of the gunmen who were killed were left on the battlefield and would be taken for burial on Tuesday.
"There were families with them, women and children," he said.
The U.S. military, which turned over provincial control to Iraqi security forces in Najaf last month, touted the operation as a victory for Iraqi forces, singling out their efforts to recover the bodies of two U.S. soldiers killed when their helicopter went down during the fighting.
"This is an example of a promise kept," Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks, deputy commander of the Multi-National Division -- Baghdad and the 1st Cavalry Division, said. "Everything worked just as it should have."