How a Cult Grew in Najaf

Baghdad, Iraq - As if virtual civil war weren't a problem enough, Iraq had to face down an armed uprising by a group that allegedly had a lot in common with the Branch Davidians — a millenarian cult led by a charismatic messiah figure who believed that it could bring about the end of the world. Indeed, the man who was hailed as the Mahdi — an Islamic figure who arrives with the cosmic apocalypse — wasn't just defending a military encampment in the holy city of Najaf from the Iraqi Army. He and his followers were protecting land that had been the cult's home for well over a decade.

In the aftermath of Iraq's first war with the United States, with the country's southern provinces devastated and the Baathist regime engaged in ferocious repression of Shi'a, Iraqis migrated throughout the area looking for work and safety. In this environment, migrants from the city of Hilla bought the land near Najaf and built a miniature community complete with bakery and infirmary. It also included a school where the sect taught its beliefs. The arrival of this new group raised few eyebrows. It's not unusual in rural areas of Iraq for extended families to buy property and then bring their more distant relatives to live in the area. Even as battle drew near sect members were waved through local checkpoints as a neighborly courtesy.

Now that the battle is over and Yamani is dead, the Iraqi government is claiming that unspeakable and impious things went on in the compound, though it is difficult to untangle reality from stories designed to make the defeated sect look bad. The government now says that it found a pool underneath a large tent where sect members engaged in orgies — in the apparent belief that immoral behavior would hasten the advent of the Mahdi.

But how did they get the massive amounts of weapons, some quite sophisticated, that they used against the Iraqi military and American air power? One of the group's former neighbors in Najaf used to be the Al Quds Army — a militia Saddam had organized supposedly to liberate Jerusalem from the Israelis. In the aftermath of the American invasion of 2003 the al Quds Army abandoned its base. In a scene repeated across Iraq in 2003, that Iraqi military installation was looted by the Army of Heaven, which helped itself to Kalashnikov rifles, grenade launchers and surface-to-air missiles. During the battle, an American helicopter was shot down, killing two U.S. soldiers