- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 30, 2007

BAGHDAD — Iraq’s army announced yesterday that it had foiled a plot to kill leading Shi’ite clerics and killed the leader of a heavily armed band of messianic Shi’ites called “Soldiers of Heaven” during a fierce gunbattle near the southern city of Najaf.

Senior Iraqi security officers said that as part of the plot, three gunmen were captured in Najaf after they rented a hotel room in front of the office of Iraq’s most senior Shi’ite spiritual leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, with plans to attack it.

The fierce 24-hour battle, which began Sunday, was ultimately won by Iraqi troops supported by U.S. and British jets and American ground forces, but the ability of a splinter group little known in Iraq to rally hundreds of heavily armed fighters was a reminder of the potential for chaos and havoc emerging seemingly out of nowhere.

Members of the group, which included women and children, planned to disguise themselves as pilgrims and kill as many leading clerics as possible, said Maj. Gen. Othman al-Ghanemi, the Iraqi commander in charge of the Najaf region.

The U.S. military said Iraqi security forces were sent to the area Sunday after receiving a tip that gunmen were joining pilgrims headed to Najaf for Ashoura, a commemoration of the seventh-century death of Imam Hussein, grandson of the prophet Muhammad. The major religious festival culminates today.

The gunmen had put up tents in fields lined with date palm groves surrounding Najaf, 100 miles south of the capital. They planned to begin their attack yesterday, when Ashoura celebrations would get under way, the Iraqi security officers told the Associated Press on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to disclose the information.

In the battle to foil the attack on the pilgrims, Iraqi and U.S. forces faced off against more than 200 gunmen with small-arms fire, rocket-propelled grenades and hand grenades, the U.S. military said. The battle occurred about 12 miles northeast of Najaf.

The American military said U.S. air power was called in after the Iraqis faced fierce resistance. American ground forces also were deployed after small-arms fire downed a U.S. helicopter, killing two soldiers.

U.S. and British jets played a major role in the fighting, dropping 500-pound bombs on the militants’ positions, but President Bush said the battle was an indication that Iraqis were beginning to take control.

“My first reaction on this report from the battlefield is that the Iraqis are beginning to show me something,” Mr. Bush told NPR yesterday.

The U.S. military said more than 100 gunmen were captured, but it did not say how many were killed. Iraqi defense officials said 200 militants were killed, 60 wounded and at least 120 captured.

“It seems most likely that this was Shi’ite-on-Shi’ite violence, with millenarian cultists making an attempt to march on Najaf during the chaos of the ritual season of Muharram,” Juan Cole, an Islamic scholar at the University of Michigan, said on his Web site. “The dangers of Shi’ite-on-Shi’ite violence in Iraq are substantial, as this episode demonstrated.”

But Iraqi officials said Sunni extremists and Saddam Hussein loyalists also helped the cult in their bid to ambush Shi’ite worshippers.

“We have information from our intelligence sources that indicated the leader of this group had links with the former regime elements since 1993,” said Ahmed al-Fatlawi, a member of the Najaf provincial council.

Mr. al-Fatlawi said that in addition to Iraqi Shi’ites, the gunmen included Sunnis and foreigners. Other Najaf government officials said Afghans, Saudis and even a Sudanese were among the dead.

Gen. al-Ghanemi said the area where the men were staying was once run by Saddam’s Al-Quds army, a military organization the dictator established in the 1990s. The ousted leader was executed last month.

Abdul Hussein Abtan, deputy governor of Najaf, told Iraqi state television that the group had developed a military structure, acquiring heavy arms and digging trenches.

“What we want to know is where they bought all these weapons?” Gen. al-Ghanemi said, adding that the army seized about 500 automatic rifles in addition to mortars, heavy machine guns and Russian-made Katyusha rockets in what amounted to a major test for Iraq’s new military as it works toward taking over responsibility for security from U.S.-led forces.

Gen. al-Ghanemi said the group is considered heretical by mainstream Shi’ite clerics and had been planning for months to attack Najaf during the Ashoura ceremonies.

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