Iraqi cult leader killed in Najaf battle

Najaf, Iraq - 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.

Authorities were on alert on Monday 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.

The final casualty toll, put 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.

"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 group, which other Iraqi officials said included both Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims as well as foreigners, had planned an attack on the Shi'ite clerical establishment in Najaf on Monday, the climax of Ashura.

"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."

Though Sunnis and Shi'ites are engaged in an embryonic sectarian civil war in Iraq, there have been instances in Islamic history where groups have drawn from both communities to challenge the authority of the existing clerical leadership.

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 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.

The U.S. military declined to provide details, saying operations were continuing.

The U.S. military 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.

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.

In today's Iraq, the powerful Mehdi Army militia of Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr shares the name but not the ideas.

Up to 1.5 millions pilgrims gathered in Kerbala, 70 km north of Najaf, for the climax of Ashura 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 heavy restrictions imposed by Saddam Hussein's Sunni-dominated state.

Shiyaa Mousa, 49, a tribal leader who was in Kerbala, said he was worried about violence. "They started in Najaf yesterday and they will do it tomorrow, God forbid," he said.