Baghdad - Twenty-eight members of a Shiite messianic cult responsible for brutal attacks on Shiite pilgrims in Iraq were sentenced to death on Thursday, said an official from the federal court in Dhi Qar Province.
The condemned were members of the Followers of the Mahdi, itself a part of the Soldiers of Heaven, a fringe cult that believes that sowing chaos will pave the way for the coming of the Mahdi, the 12th Imam, who disappeared in the ninth century, and who Shiites believe will return as a savior of humanity.
Nineteen other members of the group were sentenced to life imprisonment, and six were acquitted, said the court official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.
The Soldiers of Heaven have fought Iraqi and American security forces in a series of clashes. None have been more brutal, or bizarre, than a battle in January 2007 on the outskirts of the holy Shiite city of Najaf, where an estimated 1,000 cult members entrenched themselves with plans to overthrow the city’s Shiite clerical leadership. Though the fighters managed to bring down an American helicopter gunship, hundreds of them were killed in the battle and hundreds more were arrested.
In September 2007, 10 leaders of the group were sentenced to death by an Iraqi court and scores more received long prison terms.
But the group, so mysterious that Iraqi officials at first could not say whether it was Shiite- or Sunni-led, continued to wage attacks, most fiercely in January 2008 during Ashura, the holiest period of the Shiite year. In Basra and Nasiriya, the capital of Dhi Qar, the group clashed with Iraqi security forces, leaving scores dead. Iraqi forces raided the cult’s hide-outs in Nasiriya, making mass arrests.
A leader of the group was arrested in December in Basra. A police chief said the cult had been planning to stage attacks against Shiite pilgrims again during Ashura in the holy city of Karbala, The Associated Press reported.
Violence continued in Iraq on Thursday, beginning with a bomb that exploded early in the morning in Jadriya, a neighborhood in southeastern Baghdad, killing two Iraqi soldiers. Two police officers were killed when a bomb set with a police convoy as its target exploded in the southern city of Kut.
In Mosul, gunmen shot and killed a literature professor at a cultural center.
Tareq Maher and Riyadh Mohammed contributed reporting from Baghdad, and Iraqi employees of The New York Times from Najaf and Amara.