NAJAF, Iraq (Reuters) - The leader of a messianic Muslim cult was killed with 200 or more followers during a day-long onslaught by U.S. and Iraqi forces on their camp near the holy city of Najaf, Iraqi officials said on Monday.
They accused him of making a claiming to be the Mahdi, a messiah-like figure in Islam, and said his uniformed “Soldiers of Heaven” had planned to massacre top Shi’ite clerics during a major religious holiday on Monday and had to be stopped.
No account was available from the group targeted in one of the strangest episodes in four years of conflict.
A Web posting last week by a man identified by officials and styling himself the herald or messenger of the Mahdi bore out the existence of the movement and its belief in the imminent coming of the redeemer.
One expert said this “messenger”, Ahmed al-Hassan, had been active in Shi’ite southern Iraq since 2003, gathering support for opposition to the U.S. occupation and the Shi’ite hierarchy.
“An ideologically perverted group...tried to insult an Islamic holy symbol, the Imam Mahdi, and use him as an ideological base to recruit followers,” the government said.
The U.S. military spoke only of responding to an attack on Sunday by more than 200 gunmen and said 100 were detained. It gave no details of those attacked by U.S. tanks and aircraft. On Sunday, two Americans were killed when their helicopter went down.
Iraqi official estimates for the dead ranged between 150 and 300 as troops scoured the area, 160 km (100 miles) south of Baghdad, retrieving bodies, weapons, cars, tents and supplies.
A Reuters reporter saw and heard intense fighting throughout the day on Sunday, with U.S. tanks and helicopters engaged.
Nearly 400 people were in Iraqi army custody and 250 were killed, an Iraqi military source said. Government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh put the number of dead at 150 to 200.
There had been women and children in the camp but it was not clear how many were among the casualties, National Security Minister Shirwan al-Waeli told Reuters.
“One of the signs of the coming of the Mahdi was to be the killing of the Ulema (clerical hierarchy) in Najaf,” Waeli said. “This was a perverted claim. No sane person could believe it.”
Authorities have been on alert for days as hundreds of thousands of Shi’ite Muslims massed in the area to commemorate Ashura, the highpoint of their religious calendar, amid fears of attacks by Sunni Arab insurgents linked to al Qaeda.
More than a million gathered overnight in the holy city of Kerbala, 70 km (40 miles) to the north, for the ceremonies.
“He claimed to be the Mahdi,” Waeli said of the cult’s leader, adding that he had used the full name Mahdi bin Ali bin Ali bin Abi Taleb, claiming descent from the Prophet Mohammad.
“He was killed,” Waeli said, adding that about 10 Iraqi soldiers and police also died in an apparently one-sided battle.
Iraqi officials nonetheless described the gunmen as well-armed and well-disciplined, with many in uniform.
Waeli said the man calling himself the Mahdi was believed to be from the city of Diwaniya. An official in Najaf identified him, however, as Dhia Abdul-Zahra al-Qarawi, from Hilla.
Although Sunnis and Shi’ites are engaged in an embryonic sectarian civil war in Iraq, there are instances in history where groups drawn from both communities have challenged the authority of temporal clerics under the banner of the Mahdi.
Political sources said Hassan, who styled himself “the Yemeni,” was a Shi’ite who had an office in Najaf that was shut down this month. In a Web posting dated last week, he called on “followers of the Mahdi” and said they “have been detained many times and tortured without mercy for no reason.”
Reidar Visser, a specialist in recent Iraqi history and editor of the Web site historiae.org, said Hassan was from the city of Basra and had interpreted apocalyptic traditions in Islam to persuade believers he was the messenger of the Mahdi.
“Hassan has been active in the south of Iraq, around Basra, Amara and Nassiriya, since 2003, when he first declared his ‘revolt’,” Visser said.
“He has since been involved in several clashes...If it is indeed his followers that are currently fighting in such large numbers outside Najaf, this would mean that Mahdism has now entered Iraqi politics on a larger scale.”
Among previous violent instances of people saying they are the Mahdi were an opposition movement to British imperial forces in Sudan in the 1880s and a group of several hundred, including women, that took over the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979.
The U.S. military said gunmen attacked Iraqi troops and police early on Sunday. Security minister Waeli said police had approached the camp to tell them to leave but their leader replied: “I am the Mahdi and I want you to join me.”
Additional reporting by Mariam Karouny, Aseel Kami, Ross Colvin, Claudia Parsons and Alastair Macdonald in Baghdad