Iraqi messianic cult denies involvement in battle

Baghdad, Iraq - A Shi'ite Muslim messianic cult, whose leader was reported to have been involved in fighting with U.S. and Iraqi troops, said on Tuesday it played no part in the battle in which about 260 people were killed.

Followers of Imam Ahmed al-Hassan al-Yamani, who styles himself the messenger or envoy of the Mahdi, a messiah-like figure in Islam, said theirs was a peaceful movement not linked to the "Soldiers of Heaven" who fought the day-long battle near the holy city of Najaf on Sunday.

Conflicting accounts from Iraqi political and security sources have thickened the fog of war, making it difficult to determine exactly whom the Iraqi and U.S. soldiers fought.

The site of the fighting, in which some women and children were also killed, has been sealed off and wounded survivors are in hospital under guard, with reporters being kept away.

The U.S. military has referred to them only as gunmen, but some Iraqi officials have said they were members of the "Soldiers of Heaven", a group they said had planned to massacre the top Shi'ite religious leadership at the climax of Ashura, the weeklong Shi'ite mourning ritual that ended on Tuesday.

The Iraqi Defence Ministry said on Tuesday 263 people were killed on Sunday, in an assault on a camp in orchards near Najaf. It said more than 500 were detained, of whom nearly half were wounded.

Iraqi security officials said on Monday that a man calling himself Ali bin Ali bin Abi Talib and styling himself the Mahdi, had been killed in the fighting but that the whereabouts of his "messenger" Ahmed al-Hassan was not known.

Film of the battlefield obtained by Reuters showed dozens of bodies lying in what looked like a dry irrigation canal. Dozens of bullet casings and an AK-47 magazine lay next to one body.

The footage also appeared to show the body of Ali bin Ali bin Abi Talib, wrapped in a blanket. His face, with a neatly trimmed beard, matched a photo in a pamphlet found at the site entitled "Holy Coming", which identified him as the Mahdi.


Followers of Hassan in the southern city of Basra accused Iraqi authorities of falsely implicating them in the fighting and said their leader had no involvement. Iraqi security forces shut down their office in Najaf last week.

"We have no role with what happened in Najaf. That is propaganda to damage our movement, which is peaceful," said spokesman Abdul Imam Jaabar at the group's mosque in central Basra, adding that he could not say where Hassan was.

Jaabar said Hassan was a civil engineer who formed the group in Najaf in 1999 after proclaiming he had met the Mahdi, who had declared him his grandson. He quickly won a following, which Jaabar said now numbered 5,000 in southern Iraq.

An Oslo-based historian and editor of the Iraqi history Web site, Reidar Visser, said he was surprised to read of their alleged involvement in the weekend battle.

"There is no record of them using violence in the past. My impression is that they are a small fringe group, although they do have radical ambitions," he told Reuters by telephone.

"They believe that anyone with power in the Muslim world should give it up and hand it over to Ahmed al-Hassan because he is the representative on earth of the Mahdi."

He noted Iraqi bloggers had floated theories about the battle -- one that it was an attempt by the Shi'ite-led Iraqi government to enforce Shi'ite orthodoxy, another that it was meant to send a message to bigger, dissident Shi'ite militias.

A source in the army in Najaf said that they found 1,000 copies of a book titled "The Judge of Heaven", purportedly written by Ali bin Ali bin Abi Talib. Trying to establish his identity, and that of Hassan, is difficult. Officials have offered an array of names, and at one point there was even the suggestion they may be one and the same man.

Hassan's Web site offers few clues. Describing himself only as the "guardian and envoy of Imam Mahdi", he invites readers to fill out a form: "Currently do you believe in the envoy of Imam Mahdi," it asks. The choice is: "Yes, No, or Not Yet". (Additional reporting by Ross Colvin and Aseel Kami in Baghdad, Khaled Farhan in Najaf, Aref Mohammed in Basra and Imad al-Khuzaie in Diwaniya)