BAGHDAD, Iraq — Accounts of the bloody battle near Najaf have produced more questions than answers, raising doubts about Iraqi security forces’ performance and concern over tensions within the majority Shiite community.
Among the questions: How did a messianic Shiite cult, the “Soldiers of Heaven,” accumulate so many weapons and _ if Iraqi accounts are accurate _ display such military skills? Iraqi forces prevailed only after U.S. and British jets blasted the militants with rockets, machine gunfire and 500-pound bombs. Both U.S. and Iraqi reinforcements had to be sent to the fight.
It’s also unclear how a shadowy cult that few Iraqis had ever heard of managed to assemble such a force seemingly without attracting the attention of the authorities earlier. Iraqi officials say the cult planned to slaughter pilgrims and leading clerics at Shiite religious ceremonies Tuesday _ only two days after police and soldiers moved to arrest them.
If the “Soldiers of Heaven” were able to accomplish all this, how many other fringe groups may be operating beneath the radar, especially in the politically factious Shiite community of southern Iraq? Did the cultists have links to other established insurgent or militia groups?
Virtually all the information about the cult has come from Iraqi officials, who have released incomplete and sometimes contradictory accounts.
Based on the information released, the cult numbered in the hundreds and may have included some Sunnis. Iraqi officials identified the leader as Diya Abdul-Zahra Kadhim, 37, a Shiite from the southern city of Hillah who was killed in the fighting. Some Iraqi reports said he wanted to unleash violence to force the return of the “Hidden Imam,” a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad who disappeared as a child in the 9th century.
Shiites believe the Hidden Imam will return to restore peace and justice to the world at a time when the Muslim community is in the gravest danger. Some officials suggested the leader considered himself the Hidden Imam.
In Basra, a Shiite cleric said the “Soldiers of Heaven” is the armed wing of a movement led by Ahmed bin al-Hassan al-Baghdadi, an obscure Shiite cleric also known as al-Yamani. The movement believes the return of the Hidden Imam is imminent. The cleric spoke on condition of anonymity because he did not want to be identified with Shiite factionalism.
Little is known about al-Baghdadi, who is believed to be from the southern city of Diwaniyah and who, according to some clerics, has told his followers he is in touch with the Hidden Imam. Some clerics said he founded his movement about eight years ago and has several thousands followers in southern Iraq.
Iraqi authorities said they became concerned about the cult when an informant told them last week that it was about to launch attacks during Tuesday’s festival of Ashoura. They planned to slip into Najaf with the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims that descend on shrine cities for Shiite festivals.
The alleged plot was reminiscent of the 1979 attack in which Sunni extremists seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, the holiest site in Islam, taking hundreds of pilgrims hostage to protest alleged corruption in the Saudi royal family. Saudi forces stormed the mosque two weeks later, killing hundreds.
U.S. officials praised the role of Iraqi soldiers, most of whom are Shiite forces, for confronting Shiite gunmen.
“The aggressive manner in which the Iraqi soldiers performed north of Najaf going after the anti-Iraqi forces was impressive,” Col. Michael Garrett, commander of the 4th Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division, said in a statement.
Clearly, however, the Iraqis underestimated the Najaf cultists.
Units from the Iraqi army, police and the paramilitary national police went to the group’s hide-out 12 miles northeast of Najaf early Sunday but came under a ferocious attack, according to Iraqi authorities. The Iraqis called for air support, and U.S. and British jets responded.
Still, the cultists could not be dislodged. Reinforcements from Iraq’s elite Scorpion Brigade and the U.S. Army’s 25th Division were sent to the fight. A U.S. Army helicopter was shot down, and the two American crew members were killed. Fighting continued until before dawn Monday, nearly 24 hours after the clash.
The deputy governor of Najaf, Abdul-Hussein Abtan, said Tuesday that more than 300 militants were killed and about 650 were arrested. Eleven Iraqi troops were killed and 30 wounded, he said.
The Shiite-dominated government maintains the cult had links to al-Qaida in Iraq, which seems unusual considering the Sunni group’s hatred of Shiites as heretics and collaborators with the U.S.
Nevertheless, the “Soldiers of Heaven” may have had ties to Saddam Hussein loyalists. Najaf officials said they were camped on land owned by a Saddam supporter. The area was once under the control of the al-Quds army, a force raised by Saddam in the 1990s.
It was unclear whether any former al-Quds members, who would have received extensive military training, were part of the cult.
In any case, it appears that the fighting had little to do with either the Sunni-led insurgency or the sectarian bloodletting between Shiites and Sunnis in the Baghdad area. More likely, the battle stemmed from rivalries within the Shiite community, which have led to armed clashes in the past in major southern cities.
Those internal tensions may increase if the Iraqi government bows to U.S. pressure and cracks down on Shiite militias.
“It seems most likely that this was Shiite-on-Shiite violence, with millenarian cultists making an attempt to march on Najaf during the chaos of the ritual season,” Juan Cole, a Shiite scholar at the University of Michigan, said on his Web site. “The dangers of Shiite-on-Shiite violence in Iraq are substantial, as this episode demonstrated.”
Robert H. Reid is AP correspondent-at-large and has frequently reported from Iraq since 2003.