- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 1, 2009

BAGHDAD | Police on Wednesday announced the arrest of a leading figure in a messianic Shi’ite sect that has battled Iraqi and U.S. forces, possibly thwarting plans by the group to carry out attacks against hundreds of thousands of pilgrims who will gather next week at one of Iraq’s holiest shrines.

The sect’s leader was arrested as the Iraqi government made final preparations for what it considers a restoration of its full sovereignty when a new security agreement with the United States goes into effect on New Year’s Day. Under the agreement, Iraqi authorities will have oversight of U.S. military operations and formally assume control of the Green Zone in central Baghdad.

A top adviser to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Sadiq al-Rikabi, described Jan. 1 as a “historic day” during which “the symbols of sovereignty, which are highly cherished by Iraqis, will be restored.”

But violence persisted in some parts of Iraq on Wednesday, with eight people killed in four bombings in the north.

Police said two bombs targeting a police patrol in the northern city of Mosul killed two bystanders and wounded nine others. A car bomb in nearby Sinjar killed four people and wounded 40, the town’s mayor said. Another roadside bomb in the town of Khanaqin, near the Iranian border, killed two Iraqi soldiers and wounded two others, police said.

In Basra, police chief Maj. Gen. Adil Dahham said his forces had arrested a leader of the “Soldiers of Heaven” sect, which has carried out bloody attacks during the Shi’ite Ashura holiday the past two years.

Ashura, which falls on the 10th of Muharram under the Islamic lunar calendar — or Jan. 7 in 2009 — is one of the most important holy days for Shi’ite Muslims. It marks the death of Islam’s prophet Muhammad’s grandson Imam Hussein.

Gen. Dahham said a man identified as Arshad Abid Dayem and four of his aides were arrested late Tuesday near the center of Iraq’s second-largest city.

He said police seized documents showing that the group planned to launch terrorist attacks in and around Karbala during Ashura. Karbala is home to the golden-domed mosques of Imam Hussein and his half-brother Imam Abbas, sons of the founding saint of the Shi’ite faith.

At least 72 people — mostly sect members — died in ferocious battles with police in 2008. The group has sought to invoke chaos as a means of inspiring the return of the “Hidden Imam” - also known as the Mahdi - a descendant of the prophet Muhammad who disappeared as a child in the ninth century. Shi’ites believe he will return one day to bring justice to the world.

In 2007, more than 200 members of the “Soldiers of Heaven” were killed and 600 people arrested after battles near the Shi’ite holy city of Najaf as they sought to declare an Islamic state during Ashura. At least 11 Iraqi troops were killed along with two Americans, whose helicopter was shot down during the battle.

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