- The Washington Times - Monday, January 29, 2007

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Little was known about the Shi’ite group called “Soldiers of Heaven” before a gunfight near Najaf on Sunday, and nearly all the information about the religion-inspired cult has come from Iraqi government officials.

They said the group was led by Diya Abdul-Zahra Kadhim, 37, a Shi’ite from Hillah who calls himself the “Hidden Imam,” a descendant of the prophet Muhammad who disappeared as a child in the ninth century.

Some reports said the cultists believed that by killing Shi’ite religious leaders in Najaf they could hasten the return of the “Hidden Imam,” who would restore peace and justice.

The members appeared to be mostly poor Shi’ite farmers from an agricultural area 12 miles northeast of Najaf. But they also seemed to have been heavily armed and fought the Iraqi forces to a standstill until U.S. and British jets pounded them with rockets, gunfire and 500-pound bombs.

The U.S. military said Iraqi soldiers and police went to the group’s area after a tip that armed men were moving toward Najaf with Shi’ite pilgrims attending a major Shi’ite religious festival, Ashoura, which culminates today.

The Iraqi patrol was attacked with small-arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades, prompting the U.S. to send jets and helicopters, one of which crashed during the battle. Iraqi officials say the group’s members had planned to kill clerics and pilgrims.

Iraqi officials said the group included some Sunnis and foreign fighters and apparently was linked to al Qaeda in Iraq. Its members were assembling in a palm grove that was bought about six months ago by a Saddam Hussein loyalist.

The Iraqi army said the area had been controlled by Saddam’s Al-Quds Army, a military organization he established in the 1990s. Some of the clans in the area had supported the dictator despite his oppression of the majority Shi’ite community.

Iraqi officials said the group had dug defense trenches, displayed military skills and was heavily armed, suggesting some sort of link to insurgent organizations.

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