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.
Ayad Abu Gilel, the brother of the governor of Najaf, showed the correspondent a 53-minute videotape recorded inside the compound.
The footage showed a wide trench ringing the encampment and a series of tunnels or bunkers dug into earthen mounds to offer protection. The video showed at least eight vehicles mounted with antiaircraft machine guns. Dozens of dead bodies, some burned, could be seen lying amid mortars, AK-47 assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and other weaponry.
Iraqi and U.S. military officials characterized the attack as a positive signal that the Iraqi security forces were able to lead a major battle and were willing to target extremists from the same Muslim sect that runs the central government. The U.S. military handed over primary control of Najaf province to Iraqi security forces last month.
"This is a very clear message from the government that no one except the government carrying arms is acceptable, whether Shia or Sunni," said Sadiq al-Rikabi, a political adviser to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. "It reveals the firm commitment of the prime minister that any outlaw will be dealt with very strongly."
According to a statement issued by the U.S. military, Iraqi army and police forces deployed to the area of the encampment following a tip that gunmen were moving toward Najaf among Shiite pilgrims traveling to observe the religious holiday of Ashura, which culminates Tuesday. More than 200 gunmen attacked the joint patrol using small arms, rocket-propelled grenades and hand grenades, the military said. U.S. ground troops and aircraft were called in for support.
"The aggressive manner in which the Iraqi soldiers performed north of [Najaf] going after the anti-Iraqi forces was impressive," said Col. Michael Garrett, commander of the 4th Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division, in the statement.
During a news conference in Najaf, the deputy provincial governor, Abdul Hussein Abtan, said the fighters were able to amass the vehicles and weaponry under the pretext that they were moving building materials destined for the Najaf airport, which is under construction. He said the group surged in numbers over the past 10 days in preparation for attacks on pilgrims, shrines in Najaf and clerics on the last day of Ashura. Among the fighters captured or killed were two Egyptians, a Lebanese and a Sudanese, he said.
"There were extensive preparations, they were highly trained, and they fought in an orderly way," said Wahli. "Their leader kept insisting through a loudspeaker that they keep fighting, despite repeated attempts by the Iraqi security forces to get them to stop."
Elsewhere in Iraq, national police patrols found 47 bodies over the past day, including 43 from around Baghdad, said Maj. Gen. Sami Mahmoud of the Interior Ministry, who said all of the unidentified people were shot to death.
Also, an insurgent threw a hand grenade at an Iraqi police patrol in the Dora neighborhood of southern Baghdad, killing two policemen and wounding four others, Mahmoud said.
A car bomb exploded in the northern city of Kirkuk targeting a Kurdish militia commander, killing one person and injuring seven others, said Brig. Gen. Turhan Yousif, the Kirkuk police chief.
Sarhan reported from Najaf. Staff writer Ernesto Londoño and special correspondents Naseer Nouri and Saad al-Izzi in Baghdad contributed to this report.