NAJAF, Iraq – Iraqi police on Wednesday detained hundreds of people suspected of being linked to the Soldiers of Heaven religious cult as burials began for the 350 cult members who were killed by U.S. and Iraqi troops in a bizarre shootout on Sunday.

But the cult remained shrouded in mystery, and authorities struggled to explain its connections and the origin of $10 million found on the cult’s farms outside Najaf, a Shiite holy city.

Some 600 townspeople were detained Wednesday, in addition to the 590 held since Tuesday, but it was unclear what charges, if any, would be filed against them.

Ahmed Diabel, the spokesman for the governor of Najaf, said Wednesday that the cult gunmen, some of whom committed suicide, had been “hired by al-Qaida” to destabilize Najaf when Shiites celebrate one of the holiest festivals of the year, the Ashura.

But he didn’t provide any evidence nor would he say why a Sunni Islamist group such as al-Qaida, which considers Shiites unbelievers, would fund a Shiite extremist cult.

The dead from Sunday’s shootout included an unidentified British citizen who was a barber for cult leader Thiya Abdul Zahra Kathum al-Qarawi, according to a spokesman for the governor of Najaf.

Little is known about al-Qarawi, who claimed to be the earthly representative of the “Hidden Imam,” the last of 12 Shiite saints who disappeared in the ninth century, according to Shiite theology.

Police said Wednesday that he came from Diwaniyah, a city that is halfway between Baghdad and Basra.

According to Shiite tradition, the hidden imam, the earthly representative of the Mahdi, or savior, will return to earth with Jesus on Judgment Day.

The cult appeared to have decided that Judgment Day was about to occur.

To hasten the return of the Mahdi, the cult believed that it needed to assassinate the Shiite supreme religious leadership in Najaf, including Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

Local authorities in Najaf became aware of a possible plot early in January, when Iraqi men who were apparently linked with the cult passed out a 400-page book titled “Judge of Heaven” to worshippers entering the Shiite shrine in Najaf. The book, which authorities quickly banned, referred to the Shiite religious leadership as infidels and called for their murder. It also said that the Mahdi would come from Kufa, where the Soldiers of Heaven had their farm compound.

Ahmed Diabel, the spokesman for the governor of Najaf, said Wednesday that the cult gunmen, some of whom committed suicide, had been “hired by al-Qaida” to destabilize Najaf when Shiites celebrate one of the holiest festivals of the year, the Ashura. But he didn’t provide any evidence nor would he say why a Sunni Islamist group such as al-Qaida, which considers Shiites unbelievers, would fund a Shiite extremist cult.

The governor of Najaf, Assad Sultan Abu Galal, had planned to bury the dead in a mass grave, but the Shiite religious authority instead ordered individual graves, Diabel said, “so as not to repeat the mistake” of former dictator Saddam Hussein, who buried the victims of his atrocities in mass graves. The dead were buried at Wadi al Salaam, the Valley of Peace, but reporters weren’t allowed in to witness. No one had claimed any of the bodies, so photographs of their corpses and numbers were affixed to every grave, Diabel said. About 180 were buried Wednesday.



(Fadel reported from Baghdad; special correspondent Zein reported from Najaf.)



(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-01-31-07 1935EST


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.