An apocalyptic sect, led by a man claiming to be an Islamic messiah, has been wiped out in Iraq just as it was planning to disrupt the holiest day in the Shia Muslim calendar, Iraqi officials claimed today.
Iraqi soldiers, backed by US tanks and helicopters, concluded one of the strangest battles in four years of fighting in the country at dawn this morning near the city of Najaf.
Local government officials claimed that as many as 300 militants from a Shia sect calling themselves Jund al-Samaa (Soldiers of Heaven) were killed in fierce fighting that lasted for nearly 24 hours and cost the lives of five Iraqi personnel and two US servicemen whose helicopter crashed. A further 100 rebels were reported captured.
Reports from Najaf today described the city as calm but awash with Iraqi soldiers and roadblocks, ordering men out of their cars and demanding identity papers. A sandstorm enveloped the streets in an orange mist.
Iraq’s national security minister said the leader of the sect was a 40-year-old Iraqi who claimed to be the Mahdi -- an Islamic prophet who is destined to rise again and judge good from evil. The man, believed to be from the nearby Shia city of Diwaniya was killed just as he was preparing to lead an attack on Shia clerics in Najaf, said Shirwan al-Waeli.
"He claimed to be the Mahdi," said Mr al-Waeli, adding that that the man used the full name Mahdi bin Ali bin Ali bin Abi Taleb, claiming descent from the Prophet Muhammad.
"One of the signs of the coming of the Mahdi was to be the killing of the Ulema (Islamic clerical leaders) in Najaf," he said.
Sectarian attacks have accompanied Ashoura, the holiest festival in the Shia calendar, in each of the last three years in Iraq, including the deadly, synchronised bombings of shrines in 2004 that cost nearly 200 lives.
The festival, during which devout Shia flagellate themselves, causes tension between Sunnis and Shia because it commemorates the 7th-century death of the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson, Imam Hussein, that led to the schism between the two main strains of Islam.
But the violence has typically been perpetrated by Sunnis on Shias and vice versa, not because of splits within the communities.
So there was confusion today about the origins and motives of the sect. US officials have declined to comment on the battle, saying the operation was still continuing but the deputy governor of Najaf claimed that the group was a Shia cult linked to al-Qaeda and had foreign fighters within its ranks.
Iraqi military officials said that 30 of the dead were Afghans and Saudis and that of the 13 arrested, one was from Sudan.
The role of al Qaeda is unclear, because the group has typically allied itself with extremist Sunni militants, regarding Shia Muslims as apostates and heretics. The deputy governor of Najaf, Abdel Hussein Attan, said the militia "appears to be a Shia group but its deep-rooted conviction is different".
"I have come to the total conviction from what I have seen with my own eyes on the ground that al-Qaeda is behind this group," he said. "Based on the confessions of interrogated militants and other information, this well-structured group intended to attack Shia clerics and take control of Najaf and its holy sites."
The Mahdi is a key figure in Islamic ideas of the apocalypse. Much as Christians believe in the second coming of Jesus, Sunnis maintain he will return to divide good from evil and deliver peace to mankind, while Shias believe he is the Twelfth Imam, a descendant of Muhammad who was been missing since the Ninth Century.
The coming of the Mahdi, and the need for a vanguard of soldiers to prepare the way, has inspired other Islamic uprisings, including the rebellion against British rule in Sudan in the 1880s and the occupation of the Grand Mosque at Mecca by militants in 1979.
Ashoura has caused tension across Iraq, with the festival due to reach its climax tomorrow. At least 15 people have already died following sectarian attacks in Baghdad and the Sunni town of Jurf al-Sakhar, south of the capital.
Five schoolgirls were killed yesterday in Baghdad when mortar shells rained down on a Shia school. A further 20 were injured. And ten people, including three children and four women, died in a Shia quarter of the mainly Sunni Jurf al-Sakhar, when they came under mortar attack this morning, local police said.
The sectarian hatred highlighted by Ashoura caused one of Iraq's most influential Shia leaders to say today that the country should split into three regions. Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, the leader of the Shia bloc in Iraq's 275-seat parliament, reiterated his call to divide Iraq into a Kurdish north, a Shia south and a mixed central zone of Sunnis and Shias.
"I reaffirm that the establishing of regions will help us in solving many problems that we are suffering from. Moreover, it represents the best solution for these problems," said Mr al-Hakim. Iraq's Government, the US and Britain have repeatedly stated that they do not want the country to divide along sectarian lines.