What precisely happened near the Shiite shrine city of Najaf Sunday is still being sorted out, but it seems likely that at its root was an unusual new wrinkle in Iraqi violence: a Shiite plan to attack Shiites.
A battle that lasted for more than 12 hours in the nearby village of Zarqa ended with a US helicopter being shot down and a claim by local authorities that more than 200 militants were slain in the fighting. But who were the militants?
Though the majority Shiite province has a problem with assassinations and gangster-style extortion, Sunni Arab insurgents are rarely active there, and fighting on this scale had not been witnessed in the area for more than a year.
The incident is a reminder of the swirling agendas now at play in Iraq and the turbulent political waters US troops are wading into as more soldiers arrive and President Bush has vowed to stand by Shiite Islamist Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
Religious ideologies and classic power plays are now converging in Iraq, leading to what at times seem to be multiple, parallel conflicts: Sunni Arab insurgents who want to establish an Islamic state fight US Marines in Anbar Province; death squads associated with militant Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr stalk the streets of Baghdad, targeting both Sunni and Shiite political rivals; mostly Sunni Arab nationalists with ties to Saddam Hussein's Baath party seek to oust US forces from the country.
Following Sunday's deadly battle, Najaf Governor Asaad Abu Khalil originally implied that the fighters were foreign Arabs of the sort usually associated with Al Qaeda and that their intention was to disrupt the religious festival of Ashura with plans to attack both pilgrims and senior ayatollahs in southern Iraqi city of Najaf, the principal seat of Shiite religious learning in Iraq.
But his office has since backed off from those claims, and it now appears the gunmen – who killed or wounded dozens of Iraqi soldiers in the fighting as well as killing the two pilots of the downed US helicopter – were Shiites motivated by extreme religious ideology.
The central Iraqi government says the fighters are members of a millenarian Shiite group called the Jund al-Sama, or Army of Heaven, and that they were plotting to kill the senior ayatollahs in Najaf, chief among them Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, to prepare the way for the Mahdi, a messiah figure for many Shiites.
They believe the Mahdi ascended to heaven in the 9th century and will return to earth to usher in a final confrontation between good and evil that will end with a 1,000-year reign of peace, which will be followed by the end of the world.
According to Iraqi Army Maj. Gen. Othman al-Ghanami, quoted by the Associated Press, the group was heavily armed. He said 500 rifles were confiscated along with mortars, heavy calibre machine guns, and Katyusha rockets. That such a little known group should be so well armed is a sign of the myriad threats to the country's eventual pacification.
Ashura commemorates Imam Hussein, grandson of the prophet Muhammad and the most revered of Shiite saints, and is the occasion of public flagellation and high emotion.
Local authorities said the gunmen were planning the attack because they believed the Mahdi was due to return Sunday, and were seeking to remove potential rivals.
"In Shiite Islam there is this very strong millenarian trend, similar to Christian movements that think Christ is about to return,'' says Juan Cole, a professor of Middle East history at the University of Michigan. "So just like some millenarian evangelicals think that the pope is the antichrist, they would see the ayatollahs as ... usurpers of his rightful role."
While Professor Cole is skeptical of the view that such millenarian movements are always triggered by social or economic upheaval, he says, "I'm comfortable in saying that in this particular case this movement that's fighting outside of Najaf is certainly enabled by the chaos in Iraq for the past decade and a half."
Such movements have ebbed and flowed throughout Shiite history and Shiite religious politics have been marked by violent power grabs for centuries. Cole points to the Babi Movement in the 1840s and 1850s in Iran and Iraq as a good example. The movement attracted vast numbers of followers, mostly from the urban lower and lower-middle classes, who believed that the Mahdi was about to return and rid them of their unjust rulers. The group's followers targeted the Shiite religious hierarchy of the time, and sought to assassinate the Shah of Iran in 1852.
General Ghanami said the leader of the group was killed in the fighting, and identified him as Abu Qamar al-Yamani. The London-based Arabic daily Al Hayat reported that the Army of Heaven is loyal to Mahmoud al-Hassani al-Sarkhi, a cultish Shiite leader whose followers have clashed with both foreign troops and supporters of mainline Shiite leaders in Iraq numerous times since the US invasion.
His supporters have fought with those of other militant Shiite clerics, most notably those of Ayatollah Muhammad Yaqubi, whose men dominate the politics of the southern city of Najaf, and also sought to take control of the main shrine in Karbala last summer from supporters of Ayatollah Sistani, the most revered cleric in Iraq.