Baghdad -- An apocalyptic Shiite cult leader claiming to be the messenger of a revered 9th century figure was among more than 200 people killed in the fierce battles that erupted Sunday near the southern Shiite city of Najaf, Iraqi officials said Monday.
Ahmed Bin al-Hassani, who headed a previously unknown group called the Soldiers of Heaven, was plotting to sow chaos in Iraq by assassinating top Shiite clerics in order to facilitate the return Tuesday of a messianic Shiite leader who went missing in 874, the officials said.
That an obscure sect of Shiite fanatics was able to engage U.S. and Iraqi forces for almost 24 hours exposed the unpredictability of Iraq's political landscape as the U.S. military is focused on the sectarian violence raging in Baghdad and on hunting down al-Qaida members.
Iraqi officials put the size of the militant force at more than 500, but a U.S. military account of the battle said there were about 200 gunmen, 100 of whom were captured.
F-16 warplanes were called in to support Iraqi security forces battling the militants among orchards of date palms, pounding the area with 500-pound bombs, the military said.
At one point, said Iraqi Army Col. Ahmed al-Silawi, the aerial bombardment was so intense he raced through the battlefield to find an interpreter to warn the U.S. military that they risked killing Iraqi troops. "Tell them if they continue like this they will kill all of us," he recalled yelling at the interpreter. At least some of the 30 Iraqi security forces wounded in the battle were hit by American bombs, he said.
Iraqi officials said that 200 to 300 sect members were killed, in addition to at least six Iraqi army soldiers, in the fierce battle that raged until early Monday morning. Two U.S. soldiers also died when their helicopter was shot down.
Many of the dead were members of the sect, but Iraqi army officials said there were also women and children among the bodies stacked up at the hospital in nearby Kufa, suggesting civilians may have been caught up in the intense fighting. Other Najaf officials said they think cult members had taken their families to the remote farm in Zarqa, 12 miles north of Najaf, where the militants were based.
The apparently well-armed zealots planned to kill Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and other members of the Shiite religious establishment in Najaf on Tuesday during celebrations for the annual Shiite Ashoura festival in nearby Karbala, Najaf Gov. Assad Sultan Abu Kulal told reporters. The city would have been largely empty at the time, because most residents would have gone to Karbala for the commemorations.
Their goal was to herald the return of the Imam Mahdi, a messianic figure whom most Shiites believe is destined eventually to reappear on Earth. The "Hidden Imam," as he is known, vanished at the age of 5, and he is widely revered by Shiites. The Mahdi Army militia of cleric Muqtada al-Sadr is one of many Shiite groups named in his honor.
According to some Shiite traditions, Imam Mahdi will emerge to restore peace and justice to the world only when chaos reigns, and throughout history the belief has given rise to a succession of sects whose goal is to provoke upheaval.
This was apparently one such group. Najaf residents said Al-Hassani had been driven out of the city after leading attacks against Spanish troops there in 2004, and had recently resurfaced using a new name. He claimed to have descended from the sky and said he had been in direct contact with the Mahdi, who told him he was planning to return Tuesday.
Ahmed al-Baghdadi, a Shiite cleric affiliated with Sistani, scoffed at his claims, telling Iraqi state television that he first met Hassani as a student 20 years ago.
"I've known him for a long time and it's certainly not true that he descended from the sky," he said. Most of Hassani's followers were poor Shiite farmers "and he cheated them," he said.
Late last week, according to Najaf officials, followers of al-Hassani's group began converging on the farm in Zarqa, disguised as pilgrims. When Iraqi security forces set out to investigate Sunday morning, they were attacked by about 200 gunmen armed with rocket-propelled grenades and hand grenades, according to the U.S. military's account of the battle.
The holy city of Najaf had been regarded as one of Iraq's success stories, a place where Iraqi security forces were judged capable of operating independently from U.S. forces.
The battle, five weeks after the U.S. military transferred authority in the province to the Iraqi army, demonstrated the capabilities of the new army, President Bush told National Public Radio on Monday. "My first reaction to this report from the battlefield is that the Iraqis are starting to show me something," he said.
However, the discovery that Shiite zealots were preparing to assassinate Sistani and other top clerics has come as something of an embarrassment to the Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has repeatedly identified al-Qaida and other Sunni militants as the chief threat to Iraq's security.