The official government version of what occurred in Al-Najaf was that a mysterious messianic group called the Army of Heaven was planning to attack Shi'ite pilgrims and prominent Shi'ite religious figures during the Ashura ceremonies. Authorities said they became aware of the plot through an informant just last week. The fighting, according to some Iraqi government sources, led to the deaths of 263 militants and the arrests of 502 others.
The Official Version
Iraqi officials said the group's leader, Dia Abd al-Zahra Kadim, proclaimed himself as Al-Mahdi, or the guided one. According to Shi'ite belief, the 12th imam, Muhammad al-Muhantazar, disappeared as a child and would reappear as a messianic figure, Al-Mahdi, at the end of the world to save mankind and usher in a perfect Islamic society.
Kadim and his followers were accused of planning to storm the city of Al-Najaf, seize the holy shrine of Imam Ali, declare that Al-Mahdi had returned, and assassinate senior Shi'ite clerics, including Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.
Iraqi authorities rejected the group's claims and accused it of trying to incite unrest during Ashura, the holiest day of the Shi'ite calendar.
"The group raises false slogans, claims to be Shi'ite, and wants to rid the world of ulama [religious authorities]," Al-Najaf Deputy Governor Abd-al-Husayn Abtan told Al-Arabiyah satellite television on January 30. "In fact, it has nothing to do with religion, and its leader managed to attract a number of simple-minded people. Nevertheless, we have discovered that the organization's leaders are highly educated people and maintain links with foreign countries."
Furthermore, Abtan said that, judging by the group's fighting capabilities, its members seem to have received serious military training, an indication that it may have links with Al-Qaeda, Al-Sharqiyah television reported on January 29. He said that, like Al-Qaeda, the group included foreigners, adding that a Sudanese and a number of Afghans were arrested, while two Egyptians had escaped.
A Dissenting View
On January 30, an "Al-Zaman" report contradicted the official Iraqi government version and accused the Iraqi government of carrying out a massacre against innocent Shi'ite tribesmen.
According to the report, a procession of approximately 200 members of the Shi'ite Al-Hawatimah tribe was making its way to Karbala to participate in the Ashura festivities. The tribesmen carried signs and placards calling on Iran to stop interfering in Iraq's internal affairs. They were stopped at a checkpoint by Iraqi security forces, who subsequently killed the occupants of the lead car of the convoy.
A convoy belonging to the Al-Khaz'al tribe nearby came to the defense of the Al- Hawatimah and the fighting escalated. Iraqi forces soon felt they were outnumbered and called in for U.S. air support, claiming that they were being attacked by Al-Qaeda-linked forces. A member of the Al-Hawatimah tribe who fled the fighting told Al-Sharqiyah television on January 31 that the procession was armed only for protection.
The Al-Hawatimah and Al- Khaz'al tribes fiercely oppose the Shi'ite-led government's close ties to Iran, "The Independent" reported January 31. The tribes also oppose the two main parties comprising the ruling United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) -- the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and the Al-Da'wah Party -- which control Al-Najaf and its security forces.
Divisions Among The Shi'a
A spokesman for the Army of Heaven, Abd al-Imam Jabbar, said the group was not involved in the battle in Al-Najaf at all and accused the government of carrying out "a propaganda campaign to discredit our group" in order to cover up the government's "crimes." "Al-Zaman" and "The Independent" also reported on January 31 that the Iraqi government had prevented journalists from talking to those wounded during the fighting.
In addition, the Muslim Scholars Association issued a statement on its website on February 1 backing the claims of a massacre and called for international investigation.
"The government's side of the story that there is a group calling itself the Army of Heaven that pursues subversive goals is baseless, and the whole issue was merely an attack against Arab tribes that did not show allegiance to the current government, or to the forces and militias that stand behind it," the statement said.
While it is difficult to ascertain what actually occurred in Al-Najaf, the battle does seem to indicate that there are divisions within the Shi'ite community. Shi'ite leaders have taken pains to project an image of unity, and Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani has repeatedly stressed the importance of Shi'ite unity above all else.
It may be in the best interests of the Shi'a-led government to promote the notion of an Al-Qaeda-linked Army of Heaven as the culprit in the Al-Najaf battle and a threat to Iraqi security. Doing so deflects attention from the fractious state of the Shi'ite community.
This would not be the first time Shi'a-on-Shi'a violence has taken place in Iraq. On October 19, 2006, clashes erupted between Muqtada al-Sadr's Imam al-Mahdi Army and the Badr Brigades that left 25 dead and more than 160 injured in Al-Amarah. The fighting began after the Badr Brigades, the militia loyal to SCIRI, blamed the Imam al-Mahdi Army for the assassination of Qassim al-Tamini, a senior Iraqi intelligence officer and a member of the Badr Brigades.
Shi'a Or Sunni?
The suggestion that the Shi'ite community is distancing itself from the Army of Heaven was given greater credence when "The New York Times" reported on February 1 that Iraqi officials were calling into question the sectarian identity of the group's leader.
At a news conference on January 31, General Qais Hamzah al-Mamuri, chief of police for the Babil Governorate, said the leader of the group was not killed and identified him as Ahmad Ismail Katte, who also went by Ahmad bin al-Hasan al-Basri. Al-Mamuri said Katte was actually a Sunni militant who had taken control of the Army of Heaven by masquerading as a Shi'a. He claimed Katte was originally from the town of Al-Zubayr, a Sunni stronghold near Al-Basrah.
"He is a Wahabbi from a Sunni town," Hamzah said, a reference to the austere sect of Sunni Islam prevalent in Saudi Arabia. "His family is Sunni, but they trained him to be Shi'a."
Iraqi officials also claimed that intelligence officers from the regime of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had infiltrated the Army of Heaven. They stressed that Katte's hometown, Al-Zubayr, has long been considered a Ba'athist bastion.
While the Iraqi government's explanations continue to be confusing and convoluted, they are bent on portraying the Army of Heaven as a rogue force that has no links to the mainstream Shi'ite community. Accusing the group's leader of being a Sunni and linking him with the former regime is an ideal way to distance the Shi'ite organizations from the group and minimize hints that the Shi'ite community is rife with divisions.
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SUNNI, SHI'A: Iraq is riven along sectarian lines, faults that frequently produce violent clashes and are a constant source of tension. Sectarian concerns drive much of Iraqi politics and are the main threat to the country's fragile security environment.