[Los Angeles Times] 2:44 PM PST, January 29, 2007
BAGHDAD -- American and Iraqi forces killed the leader of a Shiite religious cult, known as the Heaven's Army, along with several hundred armed members who had planned to launch an attack in the holy city of Najaf, including against the country's most known religious leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraqi officials said today.
The gunmen planned to attack during ceremonies marking one of the holiest Shiite holidays, in the Islamic month of Muharram.
At least 600 cult members, hiding on the city's outskirts in palm date orchids, had been digging trenches and were planning to disguise themselves as pilgrims, Maj. Gen. Othman Ghanemi, the Iraqi commander who heads the Najaf region, told the Associated Press.
He said the gunmen planned to kill as many senior clerics as they could, including Sistani, apparently because they believed the violence would cause the Imam Mahdi, the last in the line of Shiite saints who disappeared more than 1,000 years ago, to reappear.
Iraqi authorities identified the leader of the fringe group as Dyaa Abdul Zahra, also known as Thamir Abu Gumar, who was said to be armed with two pistols when he was killed. At least 60 cult members were wounded and 120 were captured. The death toll ranged from 150 to 400, officials said.
In addition, about 500 automatics rifles were recovered during the raid, along with mortars, heavy machine guns and rockets, Ghanemi told the A.P.
The militant group's members included Shiite and Sunni extremists and foreign fighters, Najaf government officials said. They pitched a daylong battle against Iraqi and American troops, in which a U.S. helicopter crashed, killing two U.S. troops. In a separate attack, five teenage girls also were killed in a mortar attack at a Baghdad school, authorities said.
The cause of the helicopter crash near Najaf was unclear, but U.S. and Iraqi officials said there was ground fire before the craft went down, and witnesses said they saw it shot out of the sky. It was the third U.S. helicopter to go down in Iraq in eight days.
Three additional U.S. troops were reported killed Sunday.
Sunday's fighting near Najaf and elsewhere was extraordinary, even by Iraq's bloody standards, highlighting the challenge faced by U.S. and Iraqi forces, which are fighting a complex patchwork of elusive enemies, including Shiite militias and Sunni-led insurgents. The deaths outside Najaf would constitute the highest daily casualty toll inflicted by U.S. and Iraqi forces since U.S. troops arrived in Baghdad shortly after the March 2003 invasion.
Iraqi security forces took authority over Najaf's security about a month ago. Witnesses and security officials said Sunday that Iraqi forces were being defeated by the enigmatic, well-organized fighters until U.S. air support and U.S.-Iraqi ground troops arrived.
Shaky footage recorded by mobile telephone, broadcast on Iraqi television, showed Iraqi soldiers hunkered behind a berm as intense gunfire erupted and smoke rose in the distance.
Ali Nomas, an Iraqi security official in Najaf, said the leader of the hitherto unknown Heaven's Army had told followers that he was a missing son of the Imam Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of the prophet Muhammad. Ali's remains are entombed in Najaf.
"They believe that the Mahdi has called them to fight in Najaf," Nomas said, adding that fighters had converged on the Najaf area from other predominantly Shiite cities in Iraq.
He lamented that Iraq's death and destruction had convinced some Shiites that the end of days was coming.
"There's nothing bizarre left in Iraq anymore," Nomas said in a telephone interview. "We've seen the most incredible things."
Najaf Gov. Asad Abu Gulal said some of the fighters were members of Hussein's Baath Party.
Although they disagreed on the attackers' identity, Iraqi officials and witnesses offered similar accounts of events on the battlefield. Most of the fighting took place in farmland outside the city, which is home to Iraq's most revered Shiite cleric, Sistani. Security forces cordoned off the ancient, labyrinthine city to prevent attacks on pilgrims, clergy and holy sites, the governor said.
The gunmen apparently planned to launch their attack today, but Iraqi security forces were tipped off Sunday night about their presence on nearby farms, Gulal said.
Iraqi security forces struck at dawn but were overwhelmed by the militants, who had dug trenches on farms. At least two Iraqi soldiers were killed in the initial fighting, a security official in Baghdad said.
Iraqi forces then called in U.S. air support as well as the Scorpion Brigades, an Iraqi quick-reaction force based in a neighboring province.
Helicopters arrived, but after one was downed about 1:30 p.m., they were replaced by higher-flying jets, as American Humvees and armored vehicles rolled into the area.
Three more Iraqi soldiers were killed, as were at least 250 of the militants, according to several Iraqi officials. Those numbers could not be independently confirmed. By 4 p.m., the tide of the battle had shifted, but U.S. forces continued bombing into the night in an attempt to stamp out remnants of the militants, Iraqi officials and witnesses said.
Two U.S. soldiers and a Marine were killed in three separate attacks around Iraq on Saturday, the U.S. military said Sunday. The deaths brought the number of U.S. military personnel killed in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion to 3,080, according to icasualties.org.
Violence began early Sunday and continued throughout the day, including in the northern city of Kirkuk, where bombings killed 14 people, and Babil province, south of the capital, where mortar rounds killed 10 and five bodies were found in the Tigris River. A suspected Baath Party loyalist was assassinated in the southern city of Kut, and in the western city of Fallouja, a car bomb killed two and injured four.
Assailants in Baghdad targeted both Sunnis and Shiites. In a Sunni neighborhood in west Baghdad, mortar rounds hit a girls' secondary school, killing five students and wounding 21 others. In another western neighborhood, explosives hidden in a wooden cart killed four and injured 18, and an Industry Ministry advisor and his daughter were shot to death in a nearby area.
In a Shiite neighborhood on the east side of the Tigris, a bomb exploded on a bus, killing one and injuring five. Two other bombings killed seven and injured 35 people in Shiite neighborhoods.
Gunmen elsewhere in the capital killed a bank clerk in a car lot near her house. At least 54 bodies were found in various Baghdad neighborhoods, including a woman kidnapped two days ago, her family said.
Meanwhile, Iraqi officials in Diyala province northeast of Baghdad sacked 1,500 policemen, charging them with absenteeism and fleeing fighting. They also dismissed Baqubah Mayor Khalid Sanjary on suspicion of having ties to Sunni Arab rebels. The province is riddled with Al Qaeda in Iraq members as well as militiamen affiliated with Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr.
Times staff writers and special correspondents in Baghdad, Baqubah, Hillah, Najaf and Kirkuk contributed to this report. The Associated Press also contributed to this report.
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