United States and Iraqi forces killed 250 gunmen from an apocalyptic Muslim cult in a battle involving US tanks and aircraft out near the Shia holy city of Najaf yesterday, Iraqi political, army and police sources claimed.
Two Americans were killed, the US military said, when an attack helicopter went down during the day-long battle, 100 miles south of Baghdad, in which up to 1,000 camouflaged militants fought the military.
An Iraqi army source said some of the dead wore headbands declaring themselves a “Soldier of Heaven”.
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The governor of Najaf province said the group had gathered in orchards near the city and had been planning to attack the main Shia clerical leadership today.
It is the climax of the annual Shia rite of Ashura, marking a 7th century battle which entrenched the schism between Shia and Sunni Islam. A million or more pilgrims gathered in the holy city of Kerbala, between Najaf and Baghdad, for the ceremonies.
Police Colonel Ali Nomas said 250 militants had been killed and an army source said they wore camouflage and appeared well organised.
Political and security sources said the gunmen were followers of Ahmed Hassani al-Yemeni and described him as an apocalyptic cult leader claiming to be the vanguard of the Mahdi, a messiah-like figure in Islam whose coming heralds the start of perfect world justice. He had been operating from an office in Najaf. The sources said captured gunmen declared loyalty to Yemeni.
Meanwhile five schoolgirls were killed when a mortar shell landed in their playground in Baghdad yesterday, while two others died when a bomb blast hit a primary school in Ramadi.
Several projectiles exploded in the courtyard of the school, shattering classroom windows and spraying pupils with shards of glass. Pools of blood smeared the stone steps and walkways. Four girls were killed instantly and a fifth died later.
The continuing violence comes as the Bush administration is struggling to persuade the American people it has a credible plan for securing and stabilising Baghdad.
Tens of thousands attended an anti-war rally in Washington on Saturday and opinion polls show nearly two thirds of voters oppose President George W Bush’s plans for deploying an additional 21,500 troops to Baghdad and al-Anbar province.
Vice-President Dick Cheney admitted that “the struggle has gone on longer than we anticipated” in Iraq, but warned that the wider problem of combating terrorism would not be solved for at least 15 years.