BAGHDAD | Members of an obscure messianic cult fought pitched battles Friday with Iraqi security forces in two southern cities.
At least 80 people were killed and scores were injured as panic spread among worshippers marking Shiite Islam’s holiest holiday.
Members of the cult, which calls itself the Supporters of Mahdi, mingled with the crowds in at least three sections of Basra and in Nasiriya, then fired shots at worshippers and the security forces, police and witnesses said.
The cult believes that Imam Mahdi, who disappeared in the 9th century, is about to return and save the world.
Police said the cult’s leader, Ahmed Hassan Yamani, was killed along with nearly 50 followers in the fighting in Basra, Iraq’s second-largest city. About 60 gunmen were arrested, and large quantities of weapons were seized from a mosque linked to the group, said the Basra police chief, Maj. Gen. Abdul-Kareem Khalaf.
About 20 other gunmen were killed in Nasiriya, police said. At least 10 policemen in Nasiriya and four in Basra were also among the dead, and at least 90 people were injured in the two cities, they said.
Friday’s violence occurred as hundreds of thousands of worshippers across Iraq took part in Ashoura rites commemorating the death of Imam Hussein, a grandson of the prophet Muhammad who was killed by the armies of the Sunni caliph Yazid on the plains of Karbala. Hussein’s death in 680 sealed the schism between Shiites and Sunnis over who was Muhammad’s rightful heir.
The holiday coincided with new criticism of the Iraqi government and Parliament from Shiite cleric Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, whose party until now has backed the government, and from a former political ally, the anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. He signaled that he might allow his militia to become active at the end of February after a yearlong freeze.
Lifting the freeze could have consequences for the U.S. military, which has been able to use the calm to focus on Shiite insurgents who have ignored the freeze. The Americans also have used the calm to stabilize Sunni and mixed neighborhoods in the Baghdad area.
Elsewhere, a U.S. soldier died north of Baghdad on Friday when an improvised explosive device exploded near his vehicle.