Shiite cult source of mystery in Iraq

Baghdad, Iraq - The messianic Shiite cult that battled U.S. and Iraqi forces last weekend had been known to authorities for two years and was believed to have no links to other Shiite groups, an Interior Ministry official said Wednesday.

Hundreds of cultists were killed, as well as two Americans and 11 Iraqi troopers, in the daylong fight that ended Monday near Najaf. Officials said the cultists planned attacks during Tuesday's Ashoura commemoration. The Americans died when their helicopter crashed during the battle.

But so much conflicting information has been released that significant details — including the identity of the leader and the group's intentions — remain murky. Official accounts have raised numerous questions.

On Wednesday, Maj. Gen. Hussein Kamal, the Interior Ministry's undersecretary for security, told The Associated Press that authorities had been aware of the cult — the "Soldiers of Heaven" — for about two years but did not consider them a threat until authorities received a tip about the group's plans to launch attacks.

"They were a group by themselves and their leader used to claim to be a messenger of the Hidden Imam," Kamal said. The "Hidden Imam" is a descendant of Islam's Prophet Muhammad who disappeared as a child in the 9th century and Shiites believe that he will return one day to bring justice to each.

"They started surfacing two years ago as a political movement in southern

Iraq and gained followers," Kamal said. "In the end they carried arms against the state."

Confusion continued Wednesday about who the gunmen were and how they managed to mount such a ferocious defense.

Some Shiite clerics linked them to anti-American Shiite cleric Ahmed al-Hassani. But his office issued a statement denying any link to the group, saying such claims aim to harm the cleric's image. Some officials had identified the leader as Diya Abdul-Zahra Kadhim, who used the nickname Ali bin Ali bin Abi Taleb.

Arabic language Web sites offered speculative versions that authorities may have provoked a confrontation.

Strategic Forecasting, Inc., a security consulting firm, said it heard that the trouble started when members of a local tribe, the Hawatim, were killed at a checkpoint after trying to organize their own Ashoura procession to Karbala. The report could not be independently confirmed.

The provincial governor of Najaf, Assad Sultan Abu Kilel, said the cult's leader told his followers they were invincible.

"The gunmen fought much better after they shot down the U.S. helicopter but after (the leader) was killed, some of the detainees knew that they were deceived," he said.

Abu Kilel added that the leader had a barber who always took care of his makeup so that he always looked his best. Music tapes and a guitar were found in his room.

Niama Hannoun al-Hatami, a resident in the area , said some of the cult members had been living there since 1992 but were isolated in their farms and never mixed with villagers. "In the past days their numbers increased sharply and police surrounded the area and hit them," he said.

In Babil province, police commander Maj. Gen. Qais al-Maamouri identified the cult's leader as Ahmed Ismail Qatea, 37, who used to live in the southern city of Basra.

It was unclear which of the names, if any, was the real one — or even whether the various names were used by the same person.

"His supporters at the base (near Najaf) were between 1,300 to 1,500 members and he claims to be one of the agents of Hidden Imam and also calls himself Ahmad al-Yamani," al-Maamouri said. He added that among the goals of the group was to destroy the Shrine of Imam Ali in Najaf, one of the holiest sites for Shiite Muslims.

The Babylon police chief said the cult does not have a spiritual leader. Instead, Qatea himself claimed to be the spiritual leader.