BASRA, Iraq, (Reuters) – Iraqi soldiers and police fought running battles with gunmen from a Shi’ite cult in two southern cities on Friday in which dozens of people were killed and nearly 100 wounded, officials said.
Police said the head of the so-called “Soldiers of Heaven” cult in Basra had been killed in the fighting, which is reminiscent of clashes between the obscure group and Iraqi and U.S. forces a year ago. Those battles near the holy Shi’ite city of Najaf left hundreds dead, mainly members of the cult.
The latest clashes are the biggest test yet for Iraq’s army and police in the south since Britain finished handing back responsibility for security in the oil rich region last month.
Major-General Abdul Jalil Khalaf, the Basra provincial police chief, told Reuters that dozens of people had been killed in Basra, Iraq’s second largest city, where gunmen staged a series of hit-and-run raids using heavy machine guns.
Khalaf did not give a precise number of those killed during several hours of fighting, but he said it included the head of the “Soldiers of Heaven” in the city.
Fifteen people including a police major-general and two colonels were killed in the city of Nassiriya, officials said. Hospital officials said 82 people had been wounded.
Witnesses said gunmen from the “Soldiers of Heaven” attacked four police stations in the city. “The area (in Basra) where the clashes took place is under the control of the Iraqi security forces except for a few streets,” said Khalaf, who earlier said Iraqi military helicopters had been called in to hunt for gunmen.
Police in Basra and Nassiriya said fighters from the “Soldiers of Heaven” cult, once led by a man who claimed to be the mahdi, an Islamic messiah-like figure, had opened fire on security forces in both cities.
The fighting comes as observations for the Ashura festival, one of the holiest events in the Shi’ite Muslim religious calendar, approach their peak across southern Iraq on Saturday. The focus of the event is in Kerbala, where the provincial governor said 2.5 million people had gathered.
A Reuters cameraman in Basra said he saw about 30 gunmen dressed in black carrying machine guns and rocket-propelled grenade launchers. Some of them were driving at least two vehicles seized from police, he said.
A curfew was imposed in Nassiriya, 375 km (235 miles) southeast of Baghdad, after fighting sparked panic. “I was coming back from the market when clashes erupted. I was shot in my leg. There were masked gunmen shooting at police,” Abdullah Khalif, 32, said from his hospital bed.
Police said the gunmen in both cities were supporters of Ahmed Hassani al-Yemeni, who took over after the cult’s previous leader was killed in battles with security forces a year ago.
Those clashes near Najaf turned out to be one of the largest battles since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
Hundreds were killed then, mostly members of the “Soldiers of Heaven”. A dozen Iraqi security forces were killed while a U.S. attack helicopter was shot down, killing its two crew.
The government said at the time the “Soldiers of Heaven” had planned to kill top Shi’ite clerics.
A man who said he was from the movement told Reuters in Basra that their fighters had decided to attack security forces on Friday because of persecution he said the cult had suffered. He also said they believed the mahdi would appear on Friday.
The previous leader, who used the name Mahdi bin Ali bin Ali bin Abi Taleb, had claimed to be the mahdi.
Religious pilgrims have been gathering in Kerbala all week for Ashura, which commemorates the death in battle of Imam Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Mohammed, near the city 1,300 years ago.
Imam Hussein’s death in 680 entrenched the schism between Shi’ite and Sunni Muslims over who they recognised as the successors of Mohammed.