Iraq judge convicts 400 over cult clashes in Najaf

Najaf, Iraq - An Iraqi judge sentenced 10 people to death and 390 others to between 15 years and life in jail over clashes near the city of Najaf early this year that killed hundreds, local officials and a lawyer said on Monday.

They said the verdicts were handed down on Sunday in the holy Shi'ite city, making it one of the biggest mass sentencings in Iraq since U.S. forces ousted Saddam Hussein in 2003.

The government had said members of a messianic Muslim cult who were plotting to kill top Shi'ite clerics fought battles with Iraqi and U.S. forces near Najaf in late January.

Hundreds of people were killed, mostly members of the so-called "Soldiers of Heaven". Hundreds more from the group were arrested at the time.

A dozen Iraqi security forces were also killed while a U.S. attack helicopter was shot down, killing its two crew.

Ahmed Duaibil, spokesman for the local government in Najaf, told Reuters the trials took place over three months at the Najaf police academy where the defendants were being held.

A criminal judge was sent to the academy and tried the defendants in groups given the large numbers, he said. They were tried on charges related to terrorism, he added.

Witnesses were called, the defendants had lawyers and court officials attended the hearings, Duaibil added.

A court official in Najaf confirmed that 10 people had been sentenced to death and another 390 given jail terms.

One of the lawyers, who declined to be identified for security reasons, said he had represented a group who were released for lack of evidence. He also confirmed the number of convictions.

The January clashes turned out to be one of the largest battles since the U.S.-led invasion but also one of the strangest episodes of the war.

The government said the leader of the group, who claimed to be the Mahdi, a messiah-like figure in Islam, had been killed. They said his "Soldiers of Heaven" had planned to assassinate top Shi'ite clerics and had to be stopped.

Film footage from the scene of the fighting at the time showed a score or more bodies dumped in a large room and dozens of others scattered about a compound. All were wearing civilian clothes. A large group of survivors including women and children were shown surrounded by U.S. and Iraqi troops.

The compound was littered with burnt-out vehicles, including pickup trucks mounted with machineguns, an armoured Humvee and a troop-carrier. Buildings had been sprayed with machinegun fire.