A Bizarre Cult Fights for Control of Two Shiite Cities

New and freakish forms of violence are constantly thrown up in Iraq and keeping American forces on their toes.

One such case was the big clash that raged from Sunday, Jan 28 to Tuesday, Jan 30 around the small village of Zarqa, a few kilometers northeast of the Shiite shrine city of Najef south of Baghdad. It turned out to be the biggest and least anticipated battle Iraq has seen since the US 2003 invasion of the country.

American and Iraqi forces fought hundreds of fighters of an obscure Islamic sect said to be bent on assassinating Shiite clerics during the Ashura pilgrimage rites in nearby Karbala.

The group, which calls itself the Army of Heaven, believes in the return of the Mahdi, a 9th century imam whose reappearance they say will herald a new world of justice and peace. The cult’s leader, Mahdi bin Ali bin Abi Taleb, 40, reportedly from the Shiite city of Diwaniya, was killed in the battle.

Circles close to the Iraqi national security adviser Muaffaq al-Rubai claimed on the strength of secret information reaching Baghdad that 1,000 of these cult members armed with heavy weapons were bound for Najef, in order to murder all the Shiite ayatollohs taking part in the Ashura rites, including Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani.

They were also tipped off that Iranian agents had infiltrated the cult army. One source said the Army of Heaven had been incited by al Qaeda operatives.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources in Iraq report that the only credible fact about this episode is the Baghdad government’s reaction: Fearing a bloodbath, it diverted to the Najef area the crack Scorpion Brigade, which was en route from the south to Baghdad, with orders to intercept the cultists.

It took no more than 15 minutes for the Scorpion fighters to recognize they were facing superior firepower.


The Iraqi Scorpion Brigade disappointed


American fighter planes and helicopters had to be called up. When a US helicopter was shot down by ground fire, killing the two crew members, the US command rushed two infantry battalions to the scene. The attack was finally put down – but not before US infantrymen rushed the assailants under aerial and artillery cover.

The engagement moved back and forth over such a large area, killing so many armed cultists, that Wednesday night, Jan. 31, Iraqi salvage teams under US supervision were still retrieving the bodies, provisionally estimated at 263. Under questioning are 200 captured gunmen, most of them wounded.

This unforeseen encounter with a hitherto unknown enemy shows the Iraq war to be full of weird surprises with the power to throw off the best-laid plans and decisions reached in high places about what to do in Iraq.

The conclusions from this encounter are:

1. Even after four years of combat, no one knows for sure exactly what forces may turn up on the ground and who is pulling their strings.

It must be said that the Scorpion Brigade, selected to be a core element of the new American security plan for Baghdad, performed disappointingly and failed to deal with the enemy before US troops were summoned.

3. Without outside help, the Army of Heaven cult could not possibly have mustered and heavily armed a 1,000-strong fighting force for the battle of Najef.

4. This help came from an as-yet unidentified source, which was apparently bent on seizing the two Shiite holy cities of Karbala and Najef and using them to as a launching pad for insurgent attacks. The two cities may have been designated as a second war front to bypass Baghdad and the prospective US-Iraqi military crackdown there.

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