By Khaled Farhan 43 minutes ago
The leader of an Iraqi cult who claimed to be the Mahdi, a messiah-like figure in Islam, was killed in a battle on Sunday near Najaf with hundreds of his followers, Iraq's national security minister said on Monday.
Women and children who joined 600-700 of his "Soldiers of Heaven" on the outskirts of the Shi'ite holy city may be among the casualties, Shirwan al-Waeli told Reuters. All those people not killed were in detention, many of them wounded.
Iraqi troops, backed by U.S. forces, confronted the group after learning it was planning an attack on the Shi'ite clerical establishment in Najaf on Monday.
"One of the signs of the coming of the Mahdi was to be the killing of the Ulema (hierarchy) in Najaf," Waeli said. "This was a perverse claim. No sane person could believe it."
Authorities have been on alert for days as hundreds of thousands of Shi'ite Muslims massed in the area to commemorate Ashura, the highpoint of their religious calendar, amid fears of attacks by Sunni Arab insurgents linked to al Qaeda.
But Sunday's battle involved a group of a different sort, a cult which Iraqi officials said included both Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims as well as foreigners.
"He claimed to be the Mahdi," Waeli said of the cult's leader, adding that he had used the full name Mahdi bin Ali bin Ali bin Abi Taleb, claiming descent from the Prophet Mohammad.
He was believed to be a 40-year-old from the nearby Shi'ite city of Diwaniya: "He was killed," Waeli said.
The final death toll, estimated by other Iraqi officials at 300 gunmen, was still being calculated, Waeli said, putting the initial figure at about 200. Searchers were still scouring the area where U.S. tanks, helicopters and jets reinforced Iraqi troops during some 24 hours of fighting.
Though Sunnis and Shi'ites are engaged in an embryonic sectarian civil war in Iraq, there have been instances in Islamic history where groups drawn from both communities have challenged the authority of the existing clerical leadership.
"SOLDIERS OF HEAVEN"
The U.S. military declined to provide details. It officially handed over responsibility for Najaf province, in southern Iraq, to Iraqi security forces last month and withdrew most U.S. troops, to be recalled only to help in emergencies.
A government statement said the group was planning "a dangerous criminal act" in Najaf.
"An ideologically perverted group ... tried to insult an Islamic holy symbol, the Imam Mahdi, and use him as an ideological base to recruit followers," the statement said.
Waeli said the death toll among Iraqi forces was around 10 soldiers and police. Najaf's police chief was wounded, he said.
Two U.S. soldiers were killed when their attack helicopter came down during the fighting, the U.S. military said. Iraqi officials and witnesses said it appeared to have been shot down.
Some of the fighters wore headbands describing themselves as "Soldiers of Heaven," Iraqi officials said. It was not clear how many women and children were present: "It is very sad to bring families onto the battlefield," Waeli said.
When police first approached the camp and tried to call on the group to leave, their leader replied: "I am the Mahdi and I want you to join me," Waeli said, adding: "Today was supposed to be the day of his coming."
Other Iraqi officials said on Sunday that a man named Ahmed Hassani al-Yemeni, who had been working from an office in Najaf until it was closed down earlier this month, had assembled the group, claiming to be the messenger of the Mahdi.
Among previous violent instances of people saying they were the Mahdi were an opposition movement to British imperial forces in Sudan in the 1880s and a group of several hundred, including women, that took over the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979.
There are precedents in Islamic history for such violent cults. They have declared temporal Muslim leaders illegitimate infidels and have drawn followers from both Sunni and Shi'ite believers, proclaiming a unity of inspiration from Mohammad.
As many as 2 million pilgrims gathered in Kerbala, 70 km (40 miles) north of Najaf, for the climax of Ashura on Monday and 11,000 troops and police were deployed.
More than 100 people were killed there by suicide bombers three years ago, as Shi'ites marked the first Ashura after the end of restrictions imposed by Saddam Hussein's Sunni-led state.
(Additional reporting by Mariam Karouny, Aseel Kami, Ross Colvin, Claudia Parsons and Alastair Macdonald in Baghdad)