Najaf, Iraq -- U.S. and Iraqi forces killed about 250 gunmen from an apocalyptic Muslim cult yesterday in a battle involving American tanks and aircraft near the holy Shia city of Najaf, Iraqi police, army and political sources said.
Two Americans were killed, the U.S. military said, when an attack helicopter went down during the daylong battle in what was one of the strangest incidents of the four-year conflict. Iraqi officials said the helicopter seemed to be shot down.
According to one Iraqi political source, hundreds of fighters, drawn from both Sunni and Shiite communities, were still fighting.
Details of the day's battle, on the eve of the highpoint of the Shia religious calendar, were sketchy and the origins of the fighters unclear. An Iraqi army source said some of the dead wore headbands declaring themselves "Soldier[s] of Heaven."
Police Colonel Ali Nomas said 250 militants had been killed. The political source said up to 1,000 had been involved. An army source said they wore camouflage and appeared well organized.
The governor of Najaf province said the group had gathered in orchards near the city and had been planning to attack the main Shia clerical leadership today. It is the climax of the annual Shia rite of Ashura, marking a seventh-century battle that entrenched the schism between Shia and Sunni Islam.
A million or more pilgrims had gathered in the holy city of Karbala, between Najaf and Baghdad, for today's ceremonies.
Political and security sources said the fighters were followers of Ahmed Hassani al-Yemeni and described him as an apocalyptic cult leader claiming to be the vanguard of the Mahdi -- a messiah-like figure in Islam whose coming heralds the start of perfect world justice. He had been operating from an office in Najaf until it was raided and closed down this month.
Sources said captured gunmen declared loyalty to Mr. al-Yemeni.
Similar violent cults have been a feature of Islamic history. They have declared temporal Muslim leaders illegitimate infidels and have drawn followers from both Sunni and Shiite believers, proclaiming a unity of inspiration from Mohammed.
Among other violent instances associated with proclamations of the coming of the Mahdi were opposition to British rule in Sudan in the 1880s and the siege of the Grand Mosque at Mecca in 1979.
Meanwhile, in Baghdad yesterday, 13 people were killed in bombings in mainly Shia areas, police said. In a Sunni area, five girls were killed when a mortar struck their schoolyard.