BAGHDAD, Iraq — The ruins of the Soldiers of Heaven compound in Najaf yielded evidence Tuesday that the group had amassed huge wealth and weapons storehouses virtually under the noses of the Iraqi and U.S. militaries.
U.S. soldiers confiscated as much as $10 million in U.S. currency from the compound, where the bodies of dead members still littered the ground.
The group was largely wiped out Sunday in a fierce battle on its land a few miles north of Najaf after authorities learned that it planned to attack worshippers and Iraq’s leading Shi’ite Muslim clerics during religious celebrations Tuesday. Security forces and provincial authorities said 150 to 400 fighters had been killed, including the group’s leader, who claimed to be the “Hidden Imam” of Shi’ite theology.
Col. Ahmad Hussain of the police criminal intelligence bureau in Najaf said authorities hadn’t attacked the group earlier because they thought it was affiliated with anti-U.S. rebel cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Officials hadn’t wanted to “create any problem,” he said.
Al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia has been blamed for much of the sectarian violence in Baghdad and is known to have supporters throughout Iraq’s police and army.
A neighbor of the compound, Mohan Hameed, said the religious group began moving into the farming area 5 miles north of Najaf 16 or 17 years ago. On Monday, the provincial governor had said the group bought the farmland only several months ago.
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McClatchy Newspapers correspondent Qassim Zein entered the compound Tuesday afternoon, more than 24 hours after the battle ended.
He found a beauty salon for the women who lived there. New air conditioners kept the building cool, and outside was a large swimming pool. Expensive furniture was everywhere.
Zein said a police official told him a search of the compound uncovered $8 million to $10 million in U.S. currency. U.S. Army officials took the money, along with computers and documents, he told Zein.
A spokesman for U.S. forces referred questions to the Iraqi government. A State Department spokesman had no comment.
Zein counted more than 60 vehicles, including pickups and sedans. Another four large trucks were thought to have hauled weapons.
Hameed said that when the group first moved in, its members told him they were fleeing tribal disputes in Babil province. Aside from the occasional brush with criminal authorities, “they were always on good terms with the residents of the area. They never bothered anyone,” Hameed said.
Activity picked up after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, he said. And the members drove new cars. When asked, they claimed to have contracts with the U.S. base in Najaf, Hameed said.
At a news conference, Maj. Hussain Muhammed of the Iraqi army said officials continued to find weapons at the compound. “It is enough for a whole army,” he said.
Ali Nomas, a spokesman for security forces in Najaf, said 350 bodies had been collected in hospitals. Cell phones in the pockets of the dead continue to ring, he said.