Iraq detains 35 suspected members of extremist cult

Baghdad, Iraq - Iraqi security forces detained in Hillah Friday 35 suspected terrorists of the 'Soldiers of Heaven' cult, a security source reported.

The Iraqi forces stormed residential areas in Hillah, 100 kilometres south of Baghdad. The detentions came after the confessions of detainees seized during January operations.

The 'Soldiers of Heaven' is a cult of Shiite extremists who were massing for a suspected attack on Shiite clerics in the central Iraqi holy city of Najaf during the holy day of Ashura.

Joint Iraqi-US forces clashed with the cult, killing 263 and arresting many others in a battle in Najaf on January 28.

The cult was preparing for the advent of the Mahdi (the 'Guided One'), prophesied in Islam as the redeemer who would change the world into a perfect and just Islamic society alongside Jesus before Judgment Day.

Meanwhile, two car bombs detonated Thursday south of Baghdad, killing four Iraqis and injuring 30, the US military reported Friday.

In other developments Iraqi armed forces captured a suspected al- Qaeda terror cell leader during operations Thursday in Muqdadiyah, north of Baghdad, the US army reported Friday.

The suspect is believed to be responsible for coordinating and carrying out several improvised explosive device and rocket attacks targeting Iraqi civilians and security forces in the area, the report added.

During the operation, several munitions caches were recovered by the Iraqi forces.

Also Thursday, the leader of the al-Qaeda terror network in Iraq was wounded in a clash with police, interior ministry sources said.

Abu Ayub al-Masri was injured in fighting somewhere between the Iraqi cities of Fallujah and Samarra. An aide to al-Masri was reportedly killed in the clash.

Al-Masri became al-Qaeda's leader in Iraq after the death of Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi in a US airstrike last June.

There was meanwhile no confirmation of President Jalal Talabani's claim that Shiite preacher Moqtada al-Sadr, whose movement is represented by six ministers in the cabinet, had told the militia commanders of his so-called Mahdi Army to leave the country.

Arab Al-Hayat newspaper reported Friday that al-Sadr was currently staying in the southern marshlands region near the Iranian border. There had been speculation for days that the radical Shiite leader might have left the country.

US troops said he was in Iran, but his followers denied the claim. Al-Sadr, who has not been seen in public for two months, did not attend the Friday sermon at the Kufa mosque frequented by his followers.