Authorities say Iraqi and U.S. forces fought disciples of a renegade Muslim leader intent on killing Shiite pilgrims.
NAJAF, IRAQ — In an era beset by war and confusion, a purported messiah rises from the sands of the desert promising to deliver the end of time. On the outskirts of a holy city, he gathers his fighters for the apocalypse. But his plan is betrayed.
The apparent story line of the Heaven’s Army cult and its leader, Dhyaa Abdul-Zahra, seems to belong to a long-ago epoch.
But the Iraqi and U.S. troops who fought an intense battle against hundreds of disciples of the renegade Muslim leader near the ancient city of Najaf on Sunday met a modern enemy. They were armed not only with an unorthodox religious fervor but also with high-tech weapons, Iraqi officials said.
Details of the fighting remained sketchy and contradictory. But Sunday’s battle illustrates how Iraq has become fertile ground for extremists of various stripes rather than the regional incubator for moderate movements envisioned by the war’s American architects.
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On Monday, in its first detailed account of the fighting, the U.S. military said more than 100 gunmen were captured. A U.S. helicopter crashed during the battle, killing the two crewmen.
The U.S. account did not provide details about the nature of the mysterious fighters, saying only that they were “militias.”
More than 36 hours after the initial assault, estimates by Iraqi officials on the number of dead fighters varied from 150 to 400.
It was unclear how officials had reached the estimates.
Religious authorities in Najaf responsible for taking care of bodies for burial said they had received only eight corpses by Monday night. Other Iraqi officials said many bodies had not been collected from the battlefield.
One U.S. advisor to Iraqi security forces cautioned against exaggerated casualty reports from the Iraqi government.
“There are rumors everywhere,” he said. “The whole situation is so bizarre.”
Iraqi officials offered an extraordinary tale that, if true, would mean that a large, well-armed paramilitary unit grew right under the noses of the nation’s security forces.
“How could that have been invisible?” the U.S. advisor asked.
Iraqi officials said the militants had been holed up with their wives and children stockpiling food and weapons in the village of Zergha on the opposite bank of the Euphrates River from Najaf. According to some reports, women and children were among the casualties in the intense ground and air assault.
Abdul-Zahra was a charismatic figure, Iraqi officials said, whose tale conjures up American religious zealots Jim Jones and David Koresh.
The officials said Abdul-Zahra, also known as Thamir abu Gumar, was arrested twice during the rule of Saddam Hussein on charges of claiming to be Imam Mahdi, the revered Shiite Muslim saint who disappeared more than 1,000 years ago and whose return is said to herald a new dawn of justice.
After Hussein was toppled in the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, Abdul-Zahra’s group appeared to be a legitimate political movement “coming out of the new civil freedoms,” said Ali Jarew, Najaf’s provincial security advisor.
But soon Abdul-Zahra, who is in his mid-30s, began telling followers that he was the reincarnation of the Imam Ali bin Abi Talib, another revered Shiite saint.
Jarew described Abdul-Zahra as tall, fair-skinned, rugged and handsome. His followers were said to include Sunnis and Shiites, Iraqis and foreigners, men and women.
They apparently came to believe that the man from the small Shiite town of Hillah was Mahdi, and the chaos engulfing Iraq an omen of the coming apocalypse.
The Iraqi Cabinet, in a statement, described the Heaven’s Army as an “ideologically corrupted group” led by a man with “a suspicious history.”
Building a stronghold among orchards on the outskirts of Najaf, members dug trenches, hoarded food, sewed fake Iraqi uniforms and assigned guard shifts as they prepared for battle against pilgrims celebrating one of the holiest days on the Shiite calendar, officials said.
Iraqi officials said Abdul-Zahra’s doomsday vision portrayed revered Shiite clerics in Najaf as frauds and impostors who deserved to be killed.
Iraqi forces started casting a suspicious eye on the group about 10 days ago. They used infiltrators and received information that an attack was imminent.
Iraqi officials said they gave “a chance for this group to surrender,” but members did not comply. “They preferred to face our forces,” the Cabinet statement said.
Iraqi security forces said they surrounded the group’s stronghold and attacked.
By striking preemptively, Iraqi security forces said, they stopped a lethal, well-armed cult from carrying out a potentially devastating attack on Najaf’s shrines and clerics.
But U.S. officials offered a significantly different account of how the fighting started. They said the heavily armed group struck first, using hand and rocket-propelled grenades to attack a convoy of Iraqi soldiers, police and commandos who had been sent to investigate the tip about an impending attack on Shiite pilgrims.
The fighters were holed up in elaborate trenches, Iraqi officials said.
“It was obvious that they had good military training and big supplies of weapons,” the Cabinet statement said. “They were ready for a war.”
Cult members managed to break into the Iraqi army’s radio frequency, an Iraqi soldier said.
“When we were calling their names and telling them to get off the walkie-talkie, they were saying, ‘We are messengers here to save you. We are the followers of the Mahdi,’ ” the soldier said.
The group also had sophisticated medical equipment and two surgery rooms, an Iraqi official said.
During the hours-long battle, Heaven’s Army fighters captured one wounded Iraqi soldier, Jarew said. They treated him at the compound and sent him back to his comrades with a message.
“The imam is coming back,” it said, according to Jarew.
Iraqi officials said such cults could arise anywhere.
Even the U.S. has not been immune to intelligence lapses and terrorism attacks, said Abdul Hussein Abtan, Najaf’s deputy governor, referring to the Sept. 11 attacks.
He said he had seen the remains of the cult leader.
“His body is by my side,” Abtan said. “Thank God [the man] who claims that he is the imam was killed.”
Times staff writer Roug reported from Baghdad and special correspondent Fakhrildeen from Najaf. Times staff writers Borzou Daragahi, Zeena Kareem and Saif Hameed in Baghdad contributed to this report.