Baghdad, Iraq Iraq's army said Monday it killed the leader of a heavily armed cult of messianic Shiites in a fierce gunbattle aimed at foiling an attack on leading Shiite clerics and pilgrims in the city of Najaf on the holiest day of the Shiite calendar.
Senior Iraqi security officers said three gunmen of "the Soldiers of Heaven" cult were captured in Najaf after renting a hotel room in front of the office of Iraq's most senior Shiite spiritual leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, with plans to attack it.
The 24-hour battle ultimately was 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 cult's leader - wearing jeans, a coat and a hat and carrying two pistols - was among those who died in the battle, al-Ghanemi said. Although he went by several aliases, he was identified as Dia Abdul Zahra Kadim, 37, from Hillah, south of Baghdad, according to Abdul-Hussein Abtan, deputy governor of Najaf. Kadim had been detained twice in the past few years, Abtan said.
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 launch their attack Monday night when Ashoura celebrations would be getting under way, the Iraqi security officers said on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to disclose the information.
As of Monday, at least 3,084 members of the U.S. military have died since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.
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 took place 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," Bush said Monday on National Public Radio.
The U.S. military said more than 100 gunmen were captured but it did not say how many were killed. Iraqi defense officials, by contrast, said 200 militants were killed, 60 wounded and at least 120 captured.
Iraqi officials said Sunni extremists and Saddam Hussein loyalists were helping the cult in its bid to ambush Shiite worshippers.
Al-Ghanemi said the area where the men were staying was once run by Saddam's al-Quds Army, a military organization the late president established in the 1990s.
"What we want to know is where they bought all these weapons," al-Ghanemi said, adding that the army seized some 500 automatic rifles in addition to mortars, heavy machine guns and Russian-made Katyusha rockets.