Fight shows growth at extremes

Well-armed cult emerges as surprise to Iraqi authorities

January 30, 2007|By Louise Roug and Saad Fakhrildeen | Louise Roug and Saad Fakhrildeen,LOS ANGELES TIMES

NAJAF, IRAQ -- Amid war and confusion, a messiah rises up from the sands of the desert promising to deliver the end of time. On the outskirts of a holy city, he gathers his fighters for the apocalypse.

But his plan is betrayed. By dawn, government soldiers surround him and his followers, killing him and hundreds of others.

The story line of the cult-like Heaven's Army and its leader, Dhyaa Abdul-Zahra, seems to belong to a long-ago epoch.

But the Iraqi and American soldiers fighting an intense battle Sunday against hundreds of disciples of the Muslim group near the ancient city of Najaf met a modern enemy, armed not only with an unorthodox religious fervor but also with high-tech weapons, according to Iraqi officials.

Details of the fighting remained sketchy and contradictory. But Sunday's battle illustrated how Iraq has become fertile ground for extremists of various stripes rather than the regional incubator for moderate movements envisioned by the war's American architects.

Yesterday, in its first detailed account, the U.S. military said that more than 100 gunmen were captured during the battle, in which a U.S. helicopter crashed, killing two troops aboard.

The U.S. account did not include details about the nature of the mysterious fighters, saying only that they were "militias."

More than 36 hours after the initial assault, estimates by Iraqi officials on the number of dead fighters continued to vary from 150 to 400. It was unclear how officials had reached the estimates.

Religious authorities in Najaf charged with handling bodies before burial said they had received only eight by last night. Other Iraqi officials said many bodies had not yet been collected from the battlefield.

One American adviser to Iraqi security forces cautioned against exaggerated casualty reports from the Iraqi government.

"There are rumors everywhere," he said. "The whole situation is so bizarre."

Yesterday, Iraqi officials offered an extraordinary tale that, if true, would mean that a large, well-armed paramilitary unit grew up right under the noses of the Iraqi security forces.

"How could that have been invisible?" asked the U.S. adviser.

The Iraqi officials said the militants had been holed up with their wives and children in the village of Zergha on the opposite bank of the Euphrates from this holy shrine city, stockpiling food and weapons. According to some reports, women and children were among the casualties in the intense ground and air assault.

Abdul-Zahra was a charismatic figure, they said. Also known as Thamir Abu Gumar, he was twice arrested during the rule of Saddam Hussein, they said, on charges of claiming to be the Imam Mahdi, the revered Shiite saint who disappeared more than 1,000 years ago and whose return is predicted to herald a new dawn of justice.

After Hussein was toppled from power in 2003, Abdul-Zahra's group at first appeared to be a legitimate political movement "coming out of the new civil freedoms," said Ali Jarew, Najaf's provincial security adviser.

But soon Abdul-Zahra, who is in his mid-30s, began telling his followers he was the reincarnation of the Imam Ali Bin Abi Talib, another revered Shiite saint.

Provincial security adviser Jarew described Abdul-Zahra as tall and fair-skinned, rugged but handsome. His followers were said to include Sunnis and Shiites, Iraqis and foreigners, men and women.

They apparently came to believe that the man from the small Shiite town of Hillah was really the returning Mahdi and the chaos engulfing Iraq an omen of the coming apocalypse.

Building a stronghold hidden among orchards on the outskirts of Najaf, members dug trenches, hoarded food supplies, sewed fake Iraqi uniforms and drew up guard shifts as they prepared for battle against pilgrims celebrating one of the holiest days on the Shiite calendar, officials said.

By striking pre-emptively, Iraqi security forces said, they stopped a lethal, well-armed cult from carrying out a potentially devastating attack on Najaf's significant shrines and clerics.

U.S. officials, however, offered a significantly different account of how the fighting started. They said the heavily armed group struck first, using hand grenades and rocket-propelled grenades to attack a convoy of Iraqi soldiers, police and commandos who had been sent to investigate the tip about an impending attack on Shiite pilgrims.

Louise Roug and Saad Fakhrildeen write for the Los Angeles Times.

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