Patrick Cockburn / The Independent – 2007-02-03 22:59:53
BAGHDAD (February 1, 2007) — There are growing suspicions in Iraq that the official story of the battle outside Najaf between a messianic Iraqi cult and the Iraqi security forces supported by the US, in which 263 people were killed and 210 wounded, is a fabrication. The heavy casualties may be evidence of an unpremeditated massacre.
A picture is beginning to emerge of a clash between an Iraqi Shia tribe on a pilgrimage to Najaf and an Iraqi army checkpoint that led the US to intervene with devastating effect. The involvement of Ahmed al-Hassani (also known as Abu Kamar), who believed himself to be the coming Mahdi, or Messiah, appears to have been accidental.
The story emerging on independent Iraqi websites and in Arabic newspapers is entirely different from the government’s account of the battle with the so-called “Soldiers of Heaven”, planning a raid on Najaf to kill Shia religious leaders.
Iraqi Soldiers Opened Fire First
The cult denied it was involved in the fighting, saying it was a peaceful movement. The incident reportedly began when a procession of 200 pilgrims was on its way, on foot, to celebrate Ashura in Najaf. They came from the Hawatim tribe, which lives between Najaf and Diwaniyah to the south, and arrived in the Zarga area, one mile from Najaf at about 6am on Sunday.
Heading the procession was the chief of the tribe, Hajj Sa’ad Sa’ad Nayif al-Hatemi, and his wife driving in their 1982 Super Toyota sedan because they could not walk. When they reached an Iraqi army checkpoint it opened fire, killing Mr Hatemi, his wife and his driver, Jabar Ridha al-Hatemi. The tribe, fully armed because they were travelling at night, then assaulted the checkpoint to avenge their fallen chief.
Members of another tribe called Khaza’il living in Zarga tried to stop the fighting but they themselves came under fire. Meanwhile, the soldiers and police at the checkpoint called up their commanders saying they were under attack from al-Qai’da with advanced weapons. Reinforcements poured into the area and surrounded the Hawatim tribe in the nearby orchards. The tribesmen tried— in vain— to get their attackers to cease fire.
American helicopters then arrived and dropped leaflets saying: “To the terrorists, surrender before we bomb the area.” The tribesmen went on firing and a US helicopter was hit and crashed killing two crewmen. The tribesmen say they do not know if they hit it or if it was brought down by friendly fire. The US aircraft launched an intense aerial bombardment in which 120 tribesmen and local residents were killed by 4am on Monday.
The messianic group led by Ahmad al-Hassani, which was already at odds with the Iraqi authorities in Najaf, was drawn into the fighting because it was based in Zarga and its presence provided a convenient excuse for what was in effect a massacre. The Hawatim and Khaza’il tribes are opposed to the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and the Dawa Party, who both control Najaf and make up the core of the Baghdad government.
Iraqi Authorities Have Sealed the Site and Barred Reporters
This account cannot be substantiated and is drawn from the Healing Iraq website and the authoritative Baghdad daily Azzaman. But it would explain the disparity between the government casualties— less than 25 by one account— and the great number of their opponents killed and wounded. The Iraqi authorities have sealed the site and are not letting reporters talk to the wounded.
Sectarian killings across Iraq also marred the celebration of the Shia ritual of Ashura. A suicide bomber killed 23 worshippers and wounded 57 others in a Shia mosque in Balad Ruz. Not far away in Khanaqin, in Diyala, a bomb killed 13 people, including three women, and wounded 29 others. In east Baghdad mortar bombs killed 17 people.
Accounts of Weekend Battle Leave Questions
Robert H. Reid / The Associated Press
BAGHDAD (January 30, 2007) — Accounts of the bloody battle near Najaf have produced more questions than answers, raising doubts about Iraqi security forces’ performance and concern over tensions within the majority Shiite community.
Among the questions: How did a messianic Shiite cult, the “Soldiers of Heaven,” accumulate so many weapons and — if Iraqi accounts are accurate — display such military skills? Iraqi forces prevailed only after U.S. and British jets blasted the militants with rockets, machine gunfire and 500-pound bombs. Both U.S. and Iraqi reinforcements had to be sent to the fight.
It’s also unclear how a shadowy cult that few Iraqis had ever heard of managed to assemble such a force seemingly without attracting the attention of the authorities earlier. Iraqi officials say the cult planned to slaughter pilgrims and leading clerics at Shiite religious ceremonies Tuesday — only two days before police and soldiers moved to arrest them.
If the “Soldiers of Heaven” were able to accomplish all this, how many other fringe groups may be operating beneath the radar, especially in the politically factious Shiite community of southern Iraq? Did the cultists have links to other established insurgent or militia groups?
Virtually all the information about the cult has come from Iraqi officials, who have released incomplete and sometimes contradictory accounts.
Based on the information released, the cult numbered in the hundreds and may have included some Sunnis. Iraqi officials identified the leader as Diya Abdul-Zahra Kadhim, 37, a Shiite from the southern city of Hillah who was killed in the fighting. Some Iraqi reports said he wanted to unleash violence to force the return of the “Hidden Imam,” a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad who disappeared as a child in the 9th century.
Shiites believe the Hidden Imam will return to restore peace and justice to the world at a time when the Muslim community is in the gravest danger. Some officials suggested the leader considered himself the Hidden Imam.
In Basra, a Shiite cleric said the “Soldiers of Heaven” is the armed wing of a movement led by Ahmed bin al-Hassan al-Baghdadi, an obscure Shiite cleric also known as al-Yamani. The movement believes the return of the Hidden Imam is imminent. The cleric spoke on condition of anonymity because he did not want to be identified with Shiite factionalism.
Iraqi authorities said they became concerned about the cult when an informant told them last week that it was about to launch attacks during Tuesday’s festival of Ashoura. They planned to slip into Najaf with the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims that descend on shrine cities for Shiite festivals.
The alleged plot was reminiscent of the 1979 attack in which Sunni extremists seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, the holiest site in Islam, taking hundreds of pilgrims hostage to protest alleged corruption in the Saudi royal family. Saudi forces stormed the mosque two weeks later, killing hundreds.
U.S. officials praised the role of Iraqi soldiers, most of whom are Shiite forces, for confronting Shiite gunmen.
“The aggressive manner in which the Iraqi soldiers performed north of Najaf going after the anti-Iraqi forces was impressive,” Col. Michael Garrett, commander of the 4th Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division, said in a statement.
Clearly, however, the Iraqis underestimated the Najaf cultists.
Units from the Iraqi army, police and the paramilitary national police went to the group’s hide-out 12 miles northeast of Najaf early Sunday but came under a ferocious attack, according to Iraqi authorities. The Iraqis called for air support, and U.S. and British jets responded.
Still, the cultists could not be dislodged. Reinforcements from Iraq’s elite Scorpion Brigade and the U.S. Army’s 25th Division were sent to the fight. A Army helicopter was shot down, and the two American crew members were killed. Fighting continued until before dawn Monday, nearly 24 hours after the clash.
The deputy governor of Najaf, Abdul-Hussein Abtan, said Tuesday that more than 300 militants were killed and about 650 were arrested. Eleven Iraqi troops were killed and 30 wounded, he said.
The Shiite-dominated government maintains the cult had links to al-Qaida in Iraq, which seems unusual considering the Sunni group’s hatred of Shiites as heretics and collaborators with the U.S.
Nevertheless, the “Soldiers of Heaven” may have had ties to Saddam Hussein loyalists. Najaf officials said they were camped on land owned by a Saddam supporter. The area was once under the control of the al-Quds army, a force raised by Saddam in the 1990s.
It was unclear whether any former al-Quds members, who would have received extensive military training, were part of the cult.
In any case, it appears that the fighting had little to do with either the Sunni-led insurgency or the sectarian bloodletting between Shiites and Sunnis in the Baghdad area. More likely, the battle stemmed from rivalries within the Shiite community, which have led to armed clashes in the past in major southern cities.
Those internal tensions may increase if the Iraqi government bows to U.S. pressure and cracks down on Shiite militias.
“It seems most likely that this was Shiite-on-Shiite violence, with millenarian cultists making an attempt to march on Najaf during the chaos of the ritual season,” Juan Cole, a Shiite scholar at the University of Michigan, said on his Web site. “The dangers of Shiite-on-Shiite violence in Iraq are substantial, as this episode demonstrated.”
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