Iraqi forces crush doomsday cult

Followers seek to hasten return of the Mahdi


A major Shiite ritual ended peacefully in the southern city of Kerbala on Saturday after Iraqi forces imposed tight security around 2.5 million pilgrims, as security forces overran a mosque in southern Iraq where Shiite doomsday cultists were holed up, ending two days of clashes in two cities that killed at least 70 people.

Millions of Shiites across Iraq marked the climax of 10-day Ashura rituals, which commemorate the killing of Imam Hussein by armies of caliph Yazid in 680.

The mosque was the last stronghold of the cultists.

Wearing yellow headbands and sporting the Star of David, they attacked police simultaneously early Friday afternoon in the southern port city of Basra and in Nasiriyah, about 350 kilometers (220 miles) south of Baghdad.

Fighting raged in both cities through the afternoon, during which, according to officials, police posts and several Shiite processions marking Ashura were attacked with machine-guns and assault rifles.

The clashes died down in Basra during the night but continued sporadically in Nasiriyah.

Police officials said at least 35 cultists were killed in Basra and 18 in Nasiriyah. A total of 12 police, two Iraqi soldiers and three civilians were also killed, according to the latest police figures.

More than 120 cultists were arrested in Nasiriyah, Basra and in a raid Saturday in the town of Musayyib, 50 kilometres (30 miles) south of Baghdad.

Followers of the cult, led by Ahmed al-Hassani al-Yamani, seek to hasten the return of Imam Mahdi, an eighth century imam who vanished as a boy and whom Shiites believe will return to bring justice to the world.

Yamani has his own website on which he claims to be an ambassador for the Mahdi, who he says is imminently to re-appear.

The fighting came as around two million Shiites descended on the holy city of Karbala in central Iraq for Saturday's climax of the Ashura rituals.

Attacks against Shiite pilgrims, meanwhile, killed nine people in the north of the violence-marred country.

Police Brigadier-General Najim Abdullah told Reuters a large group of Shiites had been returning from the annual Ashura rituals in Tal Afar, 420 km (260 miles) northwest of Baghdad, when they were hit by a Katyusha rocket that killed seven.

In northern Kirkuk, a bomb killed two Shiite pilgrims heading to a mosque for the ceremonies.

During Ashura last January, another militant sect dubbing itself the Jund al-Samaa, or "Soldiers of Heaven," clashed with U.S. and Iraqi forces outside Karbala and another holy Shiite city, Najaf.

Last year's fighting left 263 sect followers dead, including their leader Dhia Abdul Zahra Kadhim al-Krimawi, also known as Abu Kamar, who believed he was descended from the Prophet Mohammed.