The leader of an Iraqi cult who claimed to be the Mahdi, a messiah-like figure in Islam, was killed in a battle on Sunday near Najaf with hundreds of his followers, Iraq's national security minister said on Monday.
Women and children who joined 600-700 of his "Soldiers of Heaven" on the outskirts of the Shi'ite holy city may be among the casualties, Shirwan al-Waeli told Reuters. All those people not killed were in detention, many of them wounded.
Authorities were on alert on Monday as hundreds of thousands of Shi'ite Muslims massed in the area to commemorate Ashura, the highpoint of their religious calendar, amid fears of attacks by Sunni Arab insurgents linked to al Qaeda.
But Sunday's battle involved a group of a different sort.
The final casualty toll, put by other Iraqi officials at 300 gunmen, was still being calculated, Waeli said, putting the initial figure at about 200. Searchers were still scouring the area where U.S. tanks, helicopters and jets reinforced Iraqi troops during some 24 hours of fighting.
"He claimed to be the Mahdi," Waeli said of the cult's leader, adding that he had used the full name Mahdi bin Ali bin Ali bin Abi Taleb, claiming descent from the Prophet Mohammad.
He was believed to be a 40-year-old from the nearby Shi'ite city of Diwaniya: "He was killed," Waeli said.
The group, which other Iraqi officials said included both Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims as well as foreigners, had planned an attack on the Shi'ite clerical establishment in Najaf on Monday, the climax of Ashura.
"One of the signs of the coming of the Mahdi was to be the killing of the Ulema (hierarchy) in Najaf," Waeli said. "This was a perverse claim. No sane person could believe it."
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