Al-Ahram Weekly Online   8 - 14 February 2007
Issue No. 831
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Tales of the hidden imam

Official reports are mixed as questions are asked about how many were killed in Najaf last week, writes Nermeen Al-Mufti

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From Top: an Iraqi woman prays as a US army soldier barges into her doorway while fellow soldiers search the house during the launch of Operation Arrowhead Strike Six in the Shaab neighbourhood of Baghdad; Wreckage of a bus at the site where a suicide bomber blew up his truck near a petrol station in southwest Baghdad's Al-Saidiya district

Not just any resignation

Even by Iraqi standards, last week was gruesome. Hundreds were killed in Najaf, a booby-trapped truck killed 140 civilians in central Baghdad, seven car bombs targeted Kurdish offices in Kirkuk, and leaflets containing anti-government material were distributed. In anticipation of the new security plan in Baghdad, Iraqi-Syrian borders were closed and Damascus-Baghdad flights cancelled. As tensions ran high in Baghdad, US military analysts predicted an escalation of disturbances in Kirkuk.

But what exactly happened in the village of Al-Zarka, 20 kilometres south of Najaf, last week? According to Iraqi official statements, the Iraqi army, backed with US forces, clashed with a group called Jund Al-Samaa (Soldiers of Heaven). The group's leader allegedly claimed to be the hidden imam -- a Christ-like figure central to Shia beliefs. There has been a flurry of mixed reports about this mysterious leader.

Government Spokesman Ali Al-Dabbagh said that the man was one Samer Diaeddin who went also by the name Abul Hasan. National Security Minister Sharwan Al-Waeli said that the man was 40 and originally from Al-Diwaniya. Najaf Deputy Governor Abdel Hussein Abtan announced that the leader was one Diya Kazem Abdel Zahra, a former Baathist from Al-Hellah. An hour later, Abtan corrected himself, this time stating that the man in question was Lebanese. Government sources were quoted by Al-Nahrein website as saying that the man was a religious scholar called Mahmoud Al-Sirafi, known as Al-Yamani. Some reports said that the insurgent group was made solely of Shias, while others claimed that they were a mix of Sunnis and Shias. Other reports identified the group's leader as Ahmad Katea or Ahmad Al-Sarkhi.

According to independent parliamentarian Mohammad Al-Deini, Iranian agents are trying to distract attention from killings in Najaf. According to Al-Deini, the Iraqi army, backed by US forces, shelled an Arab tribal convoy as it was proceeding to Najaf to participate in Imam Al-Husein celebrations. Most of the victims were from Al-Hawatemah tribe, a Shia clan known to oppose Iranian intervention in Iraq. Al-Deini believes that the hidden imam story was a cover-up for a far more gruesome affair. Up to 1,500 people may have been killed in Najaf, he added.

News agencies have conducted interviews with eyewitnesses from Al-Hawatemah tribe. The eyewitnesses confirmed that their clan is Shia-Arab. Clashes, eyewitnesses said, began when the car transporting the clan's chief and his wife approached a checkpoint ahead of Najaf on the festival of Ashura. The chief was about to explain to the soldiers manning the checkpoints that the authorities had approved their trip, but before he had the chance to make his point shots were fired. The chief, identified as Sheikh Saad Al-Nayif, his wife and his driver were killed. The rest of the clan, who were armed with machineguns for protection, had no option but to return the fire, the eyewitnesses said.

A source from Jund Al-Samaa said that the group was a peaceful one and took no part in the fighting. But an official source claimed that Jund Al-Samaa was an "ungodly" group and with a leader who managed to convince poor and uneducated young men that he was the hidden imam. The leader had given the young men his book, Qadi Al-Samaa (The Judge of Heavens), in which he claims that one of the signs of the appearance of the hidden imam was the killing of top religious scholars. Reporters in south Iraq cited members of impoverished families as confirming that their sons were members of Jund Al-Samaa and had gone to Zarka before the clashes broke out.

The Iraqi government said that it was conducting high-level investigations into the case. But Iraqis know that previous crimes have gone unsolved, including the killing of academics and doctors, the death of 2,000 civilians on a bridge on a day of pilgrimage, the existence of death squads, and incidents of sectarian violence.

In Baghdad, a truck loaded with explosives blew up in Al-Sadriya section of Baghdad Saturday night, killing over 140 people and destroying 40 homes and 60 shops. The area mostly inhabited by Shias. In a parliamentary debate, some deputies blamed "Arab terrorists" for the attack, calling for the expulsion of all Arabs from Iraq. The request did not sit well with parliamentary Speaker Mahmoud Al-Mashhadani, who said he didn't mind expelling all Arabs, but only if all Iranians and their agents were also deported.

Just after the attack in Al-Sadriya, the Sunni neighbourhood of Al-Azamiyeh came under intensive mortar shelling in which 16 people were killed.

In another development, a US military spokesman admitted that a fourth army helicopter was brought down last week by "hostile" fire.

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