BAGHDAD – Members of an obscure messianic cult fought pitched battles Friday with Iraqi security forces in two southern cities, leaving at least 80 people dead, injuring scores and spreading panic among worshippers marking Shiite Islam’s holiest holiday.
The clashes, which erupted as worshippers marched, chanted and beat their chests in Basra and Nasiriya, represented the first major test for Iraqi security forces since Britain completed a transfer of responsibility for security in the region in December.
Members of the cult, which calls itself the Supporters of Mahdi, mingled with the crowds in at least three sections of Basra and in Nasiriya, then fired shots at worshippers and the security forces, police and witnesses said.
Police said the cult’s leader, Ahmed Hassan Yamani, was killed along with nearly 50 followers during the fighting in Basra, Iraq’s second-largest city. About 60 gunmen were arrested and large quantities of weapons were seized from a mosque linked to the group, said the Basra police chief, Maj. Gen. Abdul-Kareem Khalaf.
About 20 other gunmen were killed in Nasiriya, police said. At least 10 policemen in Nasiriya and four in Basra were also among the dead, and at least 90 people were injured in the two cities, they said.
The Supporters of Mahdi is named after a ninth-century imam, considered by Shiites to be a saint and the last of the prophet Muhammad’s true heirs. Imam Mahdi went into hiding in 878, and Shiites believe that he will return, along with Jesus, to lead Muslims in a struggle for justice.
Southern Iraq, which is overwhelmingly Shiite, is home to a number of small doomsday-style cults that believe they can hasten the return of Imam Mahdi by spreading chaos.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s office said the sect’s gunmen targeted government buildings in Basra and a police special forces unit in Nasiriya, whose commander was among those killed.
Fearful that the bloodshed could spread, authorities imposed indefinite curfews in Basra, Nasiriya and the holy city of Najaf.
Friday’s violence occurred as hundreds of thousands of worshippers across Iraq took part in Ashoura rites commemorating the death of Imam Hussein, a grandson of the prophet Muhammad who was killed by the armies of the Sunni caliph Yazid on the plains of Karbala. Hussein’s death in 680 sealed the schism between Shiites and Sunnis over who was Muhammad’s rightful heir.