Iraqi cult leader killed in Najaf battle
The leader of an Iraqi cult who claimed to be the Mahdi, a messiah-like figure in Islam, was killed in a battle on Sunday near Najaf with hundreds of his followers, Iraq's national security minister said on Monday.
Women and children who joined 600-700 of his "Soldiers of Heaven" on the outskirts of the Shi'ite holy city may be among the casualties, Shirwan al-Waeli told Reuters. All those people not killed were in detention, many of them wounded.
Iraqi troops, backed by U.S. forces, confronted the group after learning it was planning an attack on the Shi'ite clerical establishment in Najaf on Monday.
"One of the signs of the coming of the Mahdi was to be the killing of the Ulema (hierarchy) in Najaf," Waeli said. "This was a perverse claim. No sane person could believe it."
Authorities have been on alert for days as hundreds of thousands of Shi'ite Muslims massed in the area to commemorate Ashura, the highpoint of their religious calendar, amid fears of attacks by Sunni Arab insurgents linked to al Qaeda.
But Sunday's battle involved a group of a different sort, a cult which Iraqi officials said included both Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims as well as foreigners.