Monday, January 29, 2007

Leader of Shiite religious cult killed by U.S., Iraqi forces - Los Angeles Times

Leader of Shiite religious cult killed by U.S., Iraqi forces - Los Angeles Times:

"BAGHDAD -- American and Iraqi forces killed the leader of a Shiite religious cult, known as the Heaven's Army, along with several hundred armed members who had planned to launch an attack in the holy city of Najaf, including against the country's most known religious leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraqi officials said today.

The gunmen planned to attack during ceremonies marking one of the holiest Shiite holidays, in the Islamic month of Muharram.

At least 600 cult members, hiding on the city's outskirts in palm date orchids, had been digging trenches and were planning to disguise themselves as pilgrims, Maj. Gen. Othman Ghanemi, the Iraqi commander who heads the Najaf region, told the Associated Press.

He said the gunmen planned to kill as many senior clerics as they could, including Sistani, apparently because they believed the violence would cause the Imam Mahdi, the last in the line of Shiite saints who disappeared more than 1,000 years ago, to reappear.

Iraqi authorities identified the leader of the fringe group as Dyaa Abdul Zahra, also known as Thamir Abu Gumar, who was said to be armed with two pistols when he was killed. At least 60 cult members were wounded and 120 were captured. The death toll ranged from 150 to 400, officials said.

In addition, about 500 automatics rifles were recovered during the raid, along with mortars, heavy machine guns and rockets, Ghanemi told the A.P.

The militant group's members included Shiite and Sunni extremists and foreign fighters, Najaf government officials said. They pitched a daylong battle against Iraqi and American troops, in which a U.S. helicopter crashed, killing two U.S. troops. In a separate attack, five teenage girls also were killed in a mortar attack at a Baghdad school, authorities said."

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