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January 31, 2007
Cult Group Ready For Major Battle

The cult group destroyed by the Iraqi-run offensive on the eve of Ashura may have been obscure, but they had one point in common with the other insurgencies in Iraq -- they were armed to the teeth. Close air support from the US forces backing up the IA units made the difference, as more that 260 cultists died with bags of ammunition surrounding them:

The dead wore the same footwear, imitation leather dress shoes with Velcro flaps. Their mangled bodies filled the trenches. Bags of ammunition, with the names of fighters written on them, sat by their sides.

A pulpit made of bamboo stood next to a grassy field, a newspaper filled with rambling and enigmatic religious writing strewn nearby.

An unauthorized hourlong walk Tuesday through the bombed compound of a religious cult called Heaven's Army revealed provocative clues about the group, which was decimated Sunday in a 24-hour U.S. and Iraqi offensive that authorities say left 263 alleged members dead and 210 injured. Nearly 400 members were arrested, an Iraqi defense official said.

Iraqi officials said the obscure messianic group was poised to launch an attack on Shiite clergy and holy sites in Najaf in the belief that it would hasten the dawn of a new age. Iraqi officials said they got wind of the plan and attempted to investigate but were attacked by the group's gunmen in a battle that also killed five Iraqi troops and two U.S. soldiers, who died when their helicopter crashed.

The bulk of the damage to the group's base was inflicted by U.S. airstrikes, which turned the tide of a fierce ground battle that pitted the fighters against Iraqi troops backed by U.S. forces.

The obscurity of the group hid its impressive organization. The Los Angeles Times reports that none of them wore formak uniforms, but they all had identification badges. Their base consisted of 30 concrete buildings and apparently included a press for a newspaper and books. Their intent was to create the chaos necessary to bring the Twelfth Imam out of the wilderness, a millenial obsession shared by Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The group filled its newspaper with "sightings" of the Mahdi, to the extent it could be read at all. Sources who reviewed the material described it as "religiously-inflected gibberish", perhaps a way to keep its observations from outside scrutiny. The cult formed around Dhyaa Abdul-Zahra, an imam that rejected both Sunni and mainstream Shi'ite teachings, claiming as so many cult leaders do that he had a unique insight into hidden messages that only he could discover.

In other words, this appears to be the Iraqi equivalent to the Branch Davidians and the Jonestown nutcases, only better armed and more aptly led in battle. They presented a serious danger, and their Ashura attack would have brought tremendous death and destruction in Karbala had the Iraqis not fought them first. There certainly would have been no negotiating with a group of this type.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at January 31, 2007 6:38 AM

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