Sect leader among victims in Najaf battle

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The Independent Online

The leader of an Islamic group who believed himself to be the Mahdi, the Islamic messiah, has been killed along with several hundred of his followers, in one of the strangest incidents in the war in Iraq.

The leader of an Islamic group who believed himself to be the Mahdi, the Islamic Messiah, has been killed along with several hundred of his followers in one of the strangest incidents in the war in Iraq.

Women and children had joined 600-700 of the 'Soldiers of Heaven' in the orchards near the Shia holy city of Najaf to meet and fight for the returning Mahdi said Shirwan al-Waeli, Iraq's national security minister. "One of the signs of the coming of Mahdi was to be the killing of the Ulema (the religious hierarchy)," he said. "This was a perverse claim. No sane person could believe it."

Details of the fighting remain sketchy with Mohammed al-Askari, the Defence Ministry spokesman claiming that 200 gunmen were killed and 60 wounded. If so the heavy casualties were probably inflicted by US aircraft and helicopters, one of the latter being shot down and two crewmen killed.

The Iraqi army military commander Gen Othman al-Ghanemi identified the leader of the 'Soldiers of Heaven' Ahmed Hassan al Yamani. He said he was w earing a coat, hat and jeans when he died. The general added that 500 automatic rifles as well as mortars, Katyusha rockets and heavy machine guns were captured.

Statements by Iraqi and American officials are often highly propagandistic and exaggerate the other side's losses. The low casualties of the Iraqi army - three soldiers and five policemen killed - and the Americans can only be explained if the 'Soldiers of Heaven' were caught in the open by US air attack or many of those who died were civilians.

The battle in Najaf took place at a moment when tension was already high in Baghdad and central Iraq as 17 million Iraqi Shia, 60 per cent of the population, prepared to celebrate the rites of Ashura, their most important religious ceremony which takes place today. They will commemorate the Battle of Kerbala in 680 AD when the Imam Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Mohammed, and his brother Abbas were killed with their followers.

All day across Shia Iraq there were processions with men wearing black for mourning marching through the streets to the sound of drums and religious chanting. Often they beat themselves with metal flails as they lamented the death of the Imam. In central Baghdad the crowds carried green banners for Hussein and red banners for Abbas.

As many as two million pilgrims have already reached Kerbala, often after walking for several days despite the dust storms which are sweeping through central Iraq turning the sky orange. Many of the banners proclaimed unity between Shia and Sunni, saying 'Stop the bloodletting' and 'Let us make Ashura a day for brotherhood among all Iraqis.'

But few believe that the sectarian slaughter can be stopped any time soon. Sunni and Shia militias in Baghdad are increasingly using mortars against each other. There were 11,000 soldiers and police around Kerbala to protect it from attacks such as those that killed 170 people there and in Baghdad in 2004. The streets in many parts of Baghdad were closed by the police yesterday and Sunni often did not go to work fearing violence.

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