Monday, January 29, 2007

Iraq : Hundreds Dead As Iraqi Army, US And UK Air Strikes Kill Messianic Cult Leader And Followers

But Claims Emerge That "Successful" Joint Operation Against Crazed Armageddonists Was An Horrific Slaughter Of Innocent Men, Women And Children

A swirling mass of unconfirmed, unverifiable reports have swamped the world's media about what will go down in the history books as 'The Battle Of Najaf': one of the deadliest, most chaotic and downright strange confrontation between Shiite Iraqis and the combined forces of the UK, the US and the Iraq Army.

Hundreds were killed, an American helicopter was shot down, and the Iraqi Army failed to stand up as fully expected, requiring British and American aircraft to launch devastating air strikes on trenches, tunnels and fortifications manned by members of a Shiite cult, looking forward to Armageddon.

Or so it would seem. But is the 'official narrative' being foisted up by American news agencies, the US government, the Iraqi government and the American military the true story of what happened twelve or so miles outside of Najaf?

First a quick chew through some of the official accounts.

Here's some extracts from a London Times report :
They came from nowhere, a Shia cult reversing the murderous cycle of Sunni-Shia violence to start one of the largest battles in recent years — against their fellow Shia.

When the day-long combat ended, the Shia of Iraq had to confront a disturbing truth: a schism had spawned an apocalyptic splinter group bent on slaughtering as many Shia pilgrims and religious leaders as possible — in their holiest city, on their holiest day.

Their hit-list included Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most senior Iraqi Shia cleric.

Iraqi officials released a picture of the Soldiers of Heaven leader yesterday, naming him as Samer Abu Kamar. He was killed, with between 200 and 400 of his fighters and their wives and children, in trenches dug into the orchards north of Najaf.

Assad Sultan Abu Klil, the governor of Najaf, said that the sect planned to kill Shia pilgrims as they marched to Karbala on Ashoura, which commemorates the death of Imam Ali’s son, Hussein, in AD680.

Three of the cult were captured near the golden-domed shrine of Imam Ali, in Najaf, officials said, after renting a hotel room in front of the office of Grand Ayatollah al-Sis-tani. They had planned to kill him and demolish the shrine.

The group’s “zero hour” was 6am yesterday, as more than a million Shia were descending on Karbala, according to a document obtained from security sources.

It indicated that different units were assigned specific tasks: one to bring chaos to the city; an explosives unit to plant bombs smuggled into the old city, in shoes and drums, used by Shia pilgrims during Ashoura; another to assassinate senior ayatollahs; others to carry out mortar attacks and blow up the Shrine of Imam Ali.

Some reports claim up to 400 cult members were killed in the hours of fighting, although this figure may include their wives and children, who were with them in the encampment.

Other reports claim that cult fighters were roped or chained together, so they couldn't run from the fighting.

The cult, so it is said, had had enough time to extensively prepare for its battle. It was well armed with hand and shoulder mounted rocket-propelled grenades, at least 500 automatic rifles, heavy machine guns capable of bringing down helicopters and aircraft, as well as a number of Russian-made Katyusha rockets.

Extracts from yesterday's report from the Associated Press :
Iraq's army announced Monday it killed the leader of a heavily armed cult of messianic Shiites called "the Soldiers of Heaven" in a fierce gunbattle aimed at foiling a plot to attack leading Shiite clerics and pilgrims in the southern city of Najaf on the holiest day of the Shiite calendar.

The fierce 24-hour battle was ultimately 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.

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...

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 were also 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 told National Public Radio on Monday.

So far, so successful, so victorious, outside of the dead women and children, but so constant is the slaughter of Iraqi civilians - men, women, children, infants alike - a few dozen dead civilians lying amongst the corpses of hundreds of crazed, messianic cult fighters would hardly seem to matter.

It's war, the argument, and wars are cruel and bloody and know the rest.

But will we look back in years to come and see that 'The Battle Of Najaf', as far as the 'official narrative' and the semi-official narratives go, and see that it was actually nothing more than a huge hoax?

An incredible spin and psy-op campaign to cover up an horrific massacre of innocent Iraqis?

Alexander Cockburn, reporting in the UK Independent, says this may well be the case. In the following report, he cites fatality figures of over 260, with more than 240 injured :

A picture is beginning to emerge of a clash between an Iraqi Shia tribe on a pilgrimage to Najaf and an Iraqi army checkpoint that led the US to intervene with devastating effect.

The story emerging on independent Iraqi websites and in Arabic newspapers is entirely different from the government's account of the battle with the so-called "Soldiers of Heaven", planning a raid on Najaf to kill Shia religious leaders.

The cult denied it was involved in the fighting, saying it was a peaceful movement.

The incident reportedly began when a procession of 200 pilgrims was on its way, on foot, to celebrate Ashura in Najaf. They came from the Hawatim tribe, which lives between Najaf and Diwaniyah to the south, and arrived in the Zarga area, one mile from Najaf at about 6am on Sunday.

Heading the procession was the chief of the tribe, Hajj Sa'ad Sa'ad Nayif al-Hatemi, and his wife driving in their 1982 Super Toyota sedan because they could not walk. When they reached an Iraqi army checkpoint it opened fire, killing Mr Hatemi, his wife and his driver, Jabar Ridha al-Hatemi. The tribe, fully armed because they were travelling at night, then assaulted the checkpoint to avenge their fallen chief.

Members of another tribe called Khaza'il living in Zarga tried to stop the fighting but they themselves came under fire. Meanwhile, the soldiers and police at the checkpoint called up their commanders saying they were under attack from al-Qai'da with advanced weapons. Reinforcements poured into the area and surrounded the Hawatim tribe in the nearby orchards. The tribesmen tried - in vain - to get their attackers to cease fire.

American helicopters then arrived and dropped leaflets saying: "To the terrorists, surrender before we bomb the area." The tribesmen went on firing and a US helicopter was hit and crashed killing two crewmen. The tribesmen say they do not know if they hit it or if it was brought down by friendly fire. The US aircraft launched an intense aerial bombardment in which 120 tribesmen and local residents were killed by 4am on Monday.

The messianic group led by Ahmad al-Hassani, which was already at odds with the Iraqi authorities in Najaf, was drawn into the fighting because it was based in Zarga and its presence provided a convenient excuse for what was in effect a massacre.

Middle East expert Juan Cole supplies some analysis of the various narratives and some background :
"...the fighting erupted when American and Iraqi troops attempted to arrest (cult leader) al-Hasani al-Sarkhi. The latter tried last summer to take over the shrine of al-Husayn in Karbala.

It may have been feared that he would take advantage of the chaos of the Muharram pilgrimage season to make a play for power in Najaf.

The group follows Ayatollah Ahmad al-Hasani al-Sarkhi, called al-Yamani, who is said by his followers to be in direct touch with the Hidden Imam or promised one.

Al-Hayat, however, quotes a member of the group, Abu al-Hasan, who is said to be close to al-Hasani al-Sarkhi. He said that the rumors that the group intended to conduct a campaign of assassinations inside Najaf was "devoid of truth."

It says that an attempt had been made to arrest al-Hasani al-Sarkhi, who was present in the al-Zarkah, an agricultural area east of Najaf, which caused his followers to revolt.

...there is yet a third narrative... The holy city of Najaf, where Ali is buried, is the seat of Shiite religious authority in Iraq. The militiamen, devotees of an obscure religious leader named Ahmad Hassaani, are said to have infiltrated the area from Hillah, Kut and Amara. The well-armed, black-clad militiamen were heard to call upon the Mahdi, the awaited Promised One of the Muslims, to return on that night.

It seems most likely that this was Shiite on Shiite violence, with millenarian cultists making an attempt to march on Najaf during the chaos of the ritual season of Muharram.

The dangers of Shiite on Shiite violence in Iraq are substantial, as this episode demonstrated. Ironically, given Bush's mantra about Iran, the trouble makers here are a sect that absolutely hates Iran

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