Iraqis Describe Plot To Kill Shiite Clerics

Iraqi troops move in during clashes at Zarqaa, north of Najaf. Iraqi officials say at least 200 fighters loyal to a Shiite cult leader were killed.
Iraqi troops move in during clashes at Zarqaa, north of Najaf. Iraqi officials say at least 200 fighters loyal to a Shiite cult leader were killed. (By Alaa Al-marjani -- Associated Press)
By Joshua Partlow and Saad Sarhan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, January 30, 2007

BAGHDAD, Jan. 29 -- A Shiite cult leader, who claimed to be a revered Muslim figure who vanished in the 10th century, was killed Sunday along with scores of fighters who were poised to attack a holy city in southern Iraq and assassinate the country's Shiite religious leadership, Iraqi officials said Monday.

Information about the scope of the fighters' encampment and their aspirations emerged as Iraqi and U.S. troops inspected the rural battleground and hauled out those captured and killed during the day-long siege that began Sunday.

The discovery of a heavily armed Shiite-led cult, intent on attacking venerated Shiite symbols and leaders, startled Iraqi security officials who were already contending with rival religious factions battling for supremacy in the country.

"This is a new step in the annals of terrorism," Iraq's minister of national security, Shirwan al-Wahli, said in an interview. Wahli said the fighters were led by a man known as the Judge of Heaven, who claimed to be a direct descendant of the prophet Muhammad's son-in-law, Ali. Wahli said the man also declared himself the Mahdi, the reappearance of the 12th imam, or leader of the faithful, who many Shiites believe vanished in the 10th century and whose return will mark an era of redemption and peace.

The cult leader killed Sunday probably sought to assassinate conservative Shiite religious leaders because they likely would have disputed his claim to be the Mahdi, said John O. Voll, a professor of Islamic studies at Georgetown University, in a telephone interview.

The most recent comparable event occurred in 1979 in Saudi Arabia, Voll said, when a man claiming to be the Mahdi took over the holy sanctuary in Mecca. He and his followers were killed.

Wahli said the cult leader came from southern Iraq and had written a book laying out his "supernatural, unbelievable" ideas. Over a matter of months, he recruited the estimated 700 people, known as the Soldiers of Heaven, who lived in tents and huts on farmland near Zarqaa, about eight miles northeast of Najaf, Wahli said.

Iraqi government spokesman Ali Dabbagh said the man's name was Samer Abu Kamar, but other Iraqi officials assigned him different names.

Iraqi officials said Monday that they had not finished removing explosives or counting casualties from the siege, and their estimates of the number of fighters killed ranged from 200 to more than 400. The U.S. military, which provided backup ground troops along with helicopter and fixed-wing aircraft support, said more than 100 fighters were captured. Two U.S. soldiers died when their helicopter crashed during the operation.

Wahli said the structure of the group was Shiite, but it involved Sunni fighters and "based on the level of training, support and financing, it obviously has received support from outside Iraq."

About 10 Iraqi soldiers and police officers also died in the battle, the Reuters news service cited Wahli as saying.

A Washington Post special correspondent who approached the farm where the fighters had hidden witnessed 10 ambulances travel into the encampment and saw Iraqi soldiers drive out corpses and lead away women and children among the captured.

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