Iraqi Army battles Shia cult, Sunni insurgents in Najaf
Iraqi led operation results in over 300 deaths of enemy fighters
Iraqi Security Forces, backed by American tanks and air support, attacked what appears to be a mixed group of Sunni insurgents and a Shia end-times cult known as the "Soldiers of Heaven." The battle occurred in the suburbs and orchards north of Najaf. "Police Colonel Ali Nomas said 250 militants had been killed," reported Reuters. "The political source said up to 1,000 had been involved. An army source said they wore camouflage and appeared well organised." They were also believed to have possessed anti-arircraft missiles.
Later counts put the number of enemy fighters killed at up to 350, with a minimal loss to Iraqi and U.S. troops. Three Iraqi soldiers were killed and 21 wounded, five police were killed and 19 wounded, and two U.S. soldiers were killed when their helicopter was downed. The leader of the Shia cult, Ahmed Hassani al-Yemeni "who claimed to be the Mahdi, a messiah-like figure in Islam," was killed during the fighting, which lasted over 24 hours. The Iraqi Army fought what appears to be a well armed, well trained and organized force on its own turf, and deal the enemy serious casualties, while beheading the leadership.
Early reports indicated there were both Sunni terrorists and Shia cultist involved in the fighting. "Governor Asaad Abu Gilel as saying that the militants, who included foreign fighters, had arrived in the city disguised as pilgrims in recent days and based themselves in the orchards, which he said had been bought three or four months ago by supporters of Saddam Hussain."
An American military intelligence informed us the early indications are that the Omar Brigade, al Qaeda in Iraq's unit designated to slaughter Shia, was involved in the fighting. al Qaeda in Iraq would have a vested interest in causing mass casualties of Shia during the pilgrimage to Karbala for the festival of Ashura. Over 11,000 Iraqi Army and police have been deployed to Karbala to provide security for the event.
Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty reports "one possibility is that the men belong to an al Qaeda-affiliated group. If so, they could have been in the vicinity of the Shi'ite holy city of Al-Najaf to launch attacks during celebrations of the Ashura festival... another possibility is that the U.S. and Iraqi troops were fighting a new, messianic Shi'ite militia called the Army of Heaven."
"It is a new militia emerging from [other Shiite] militias," Mustafa Alani says. "You have the Badr militia, you have the Al-Mahdi Army, and you have an [armed] group which belongs to the Al-Dawa party. Now, apparently, if this [theory] is true, we have another, fourth militia emerging now -- a [new] Shi'ite militia."
The U.S. military has yet to release an official statement on the fighting outside Najaf. Based on the reporting and information from multiple media, U.S.and Iraqi sources, the likelihood is the enemy composition consisted of a mix of the Shia Army of Heaven cult and al Qaeda in Iraq fighters from the Omar Brigade. Cooperation between Shia and Sunni insurgent groups is not a new development in Iraq, as Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army and al_Qaeda cooperated during the Fallujah/Najaf uprisings in the spring and summer of 2004. Shia Iran has been supplying the Sunni insurgency, al Qaeda and Ansar al-Sunnah with weapons and bomb making materials, and is currently sheltering senior al Qaeda leaders within its borders.
As the fighting raged in Karbala, Iran announced it was shutting down the border crossings into Iraq, obstensively to "prevent a large number of pilgrims from flocking across the border without 'legal documents.'" There is no evidence the Iranians have played a role in the uprising in Najaf. The recent assault on the Joint Coordination Center in Karbala, where 5 U.S. soldiers were killed, including four kidnapped and later executed, by what is believed to be the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Qods Force, has raised tensions between Iran and the United States.