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US 'victory' against cult leader was 'massacre'

By Carolyn E. Price     Jan 31, 2007 in Politics
Growing suspicions in Iraq that it was not a "battle" but a "massacre"
There are growing suspicions inside Iraq that the "official story" of the battle that happened outside Najaf last weekend between a messianic Iraqi cult and the Iraqi security forces supported by the US, in which 263 people were killed and 210 wounded, is a fabrication. The heavy casualties may be evidence of an unpremeditated massacre.
A picture is beginning to emerge around the clash between what is being called an Iraqi Shia tribe on a pilgrimage to Najaf and an Iraqi army checkpoint that led the US to intervene with devastating effect. The involvement of Ahmed al-Hassani (also known as Abu Kamar), who believed himself to be the Mahdi, or Messiah, appears to have been accidental.
The story emerging on independent Iraqi websites and in Arabic newspapers is entirely different from the government's account of the battle with the so-called "Soldiers of Heaven" who they say were planning a raid on Najaf to kill Shia religious leaders.
The cult is denying that it was involved in any fighting, instead, they are saying that they are a peaceful movement. The incident reportedly began when a procession of about 200 pilgrims on foot were on their way to celebrate Ashura in Najaf. They say they come from the Hawatim tribe, which lives between Najaf and Diwaniyah and that they arrived in the Zarga area, one mile from Najaf at about 6 am on Sunday morning. Heading their procession was the chief of the tribe, Hajj Sa'ad Sa'ad Nayif al-Hatemi, and his wife driving in a 1982 Super Toyota sedan because neither can walk. The group is saying that when they reached an Iraqi army checkpoint, the Iraqi's opened fire and kiled Mr Hatemi, his wife and his driver, Jabar Ridha al-Hatemi. The tribe, fully armed because they were travelling at night, then fought back to avenge their fallen chief.
Members of another tribe called Khaza'il, who live in Zarga tried to stop the fighting but they too came under fire. In the meantime, the soldiers and police at the checkpoint called up their commanders saying they were under attack from al-Qai'da with advanced weaponry. Reinforcements poured into the area and surrounded the Hawatim tribe in the nearby orchards. The tribesmen say that they tried in vain to get their attackers to cease fire.
American helicopters then arrived and dropped leaflets saying: "To the terrorists, surrender before we bomb the area" . The tribesmen kept firing and then a US helicopter was hit and crashed killing its two crew. The tribesmen say they do not know if they hit it or if it was brought down by friendly fire. The US aircraft launched an intense aerial bombardment in which 120 tribesmen and local residents were killed.
It was at this point that the messianic group, the Soldiers of Heaven who were led by Ahmad al-Hassani and who were already at odds with the Iraqi authorities in Najaf, was drawn into the battle. Because they were based in Zarga and their presence provided a convenient excuse for what was in effect a massacre. The Hawatim and Khaza'il tribes are opposed to the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and the Dawa Party, who both control Najaf and make up the core of the Baghdad government.
This account cannot be substantiated and is drawn from the Healing Iraq website and the authoritative Baghdad daily Azzaman. But it would explain the disparity between the government casualties - less than 25 by one account - and the great number of their opponents killed and wounded. The Iraqi authorities have sealed the site and are not letting reporters talk to the wounded.
I will do a little more investigation and report back with anything further I find out. If true, this would be a very disturbing development. However, I hesitate to give this a lot of credence. Stay tuned.
Here is the article from the Baghdad daily Azzaman (it is quite inflammatory) ::\2007-01-31\kurd.htm
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