BAGHDAD, Iraq—The ruins of the Soldiers of Heaven compound in Najaf yielded new evidence Tuesday that the religious cult had amassed huge wealth and weapons storehouses virtually under the noses of the Iraqi and U.S. militaries.
American soldiers confiscated perhaps as much as $10 million in U.S. currency from the compound, where the bodies of dead cultists still littered the ground.
The violent cult was largely wiped out Sunday in a fierce battle on its land a few miles north of Najaf after authorities learned that it planned to attack worshippers and Iraq's leading Shiite Muslim clerics during religious celebrations Tuesday. Security forces and provincial authorities said that 150 to 400 fighters had been killed, including the cult's leader, who claimed to be the "Hidden Imam" of Shiite theology.
The cult had no known connections to Iraq's many militias and insurgent groups. But its growth revealed something about the country's political landscape nonetheless: An Iraqi police colonel said authorities hadn't attacked the cult earlier because they thought it was affiliated with anti-American rebel cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
Col. Ahmad Hussain, of the criminal intelligence bureau in Najaf, said officials hadn't wanted to "create any problem" due to the "sensitivity of the situation between the security forces and the Sadr stream." Al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia has been blamed for much of the sectarian violence in Baghdad and is known to have sympathizers throughout Iraq's police and army.
But the question of whether Iraq's Shiite-led national government would pursue illegal Shiite militias with the same vigor as Sunni Muslim insurgents seemed a distant concern as the bizarre realties of the cult and its final hours sank in.
Many contradictions remained unexplained. A neighbor of the cult compound, Mohan Hameed, said the religious group began moving into the small farming area 5 miles north of Najaf 16 or 17 years ago. On Monday, the provincial governor had said that the group bought the farmland only several months ago.
McClatchy Newspapers special correspondent Qassim Zein entered the compound Tuesday afternoon, more than 24 hours after the battle had ended. It still had the look of a brutal killing ground.
"I have seen something I never imagined I would see in my life," Zein said in a cell-phone call from the area.
Corpses lay everywhere, contorted in death, he reported. "I cannot count the bodies," he said. The remains of three children and six women were among the uncollected dead, he added.
Zein said he toured two workshops: one was a car-bomb facility, the other a chop shop to tear down cars. Hameed, a date farmer, said his cult neighbors sometimes had been arrested and imprisoned during the Saddam years for criminal activity, including car theft.
The compound had a beauty salon for the women who lived there, Zein found. New air conditioners kept the building cool, and outside was a rarity: a large swimming pool. Expensive furniture was everywhere.
Zein said a police official told him that a search of the compound uncovered $8 million to $10 million in American currency. U.S. Army officials took the money along with computers and documents, he told Zein.
A spokesman for U.S. forces referred questions to the Iraqi government. A State Department spokesman had no comment.
Zein counted more than 60 vehicles, including pickups and sedans. Another four large trucks were thought to have hauled weapons.
Hameed said that when the cult had first moved in, its members told him they were fleeing tribal disputes in Babil province. Aside from the occasional brush with criminal authorities, "they were always on good terms with the residents of the area. They never bothered anyone," Hameed said.
Activity picked up after the American-led invasion in 2003, he said. More visitors arrived, staying overnight. And the cult members drove new cars. When asked, they claimed to have contracts with the American base in Najaf, Hameed said. They also became more religious.
At a news conference, Maj. Hussain Muhammed of the Iraqi army said officials continued to find weapons at the compound. "It is enough for a whole army," he said.
Muhammed said the cult's women used the beauty parlor "for their pre-wedding preparations." The cult leader conducted weddings himself, though no formal marriage licenses or certificates could be found.
Ali Nomas, a spokesman for the security forces in Najaf, said 350 bodies had been collected in area hospitals. So far, he said, no one had claimed any of them. Cell phones in the pockets of the dead continue to ring, he said.
Five Iraqi security personnel died and six were unaccounted for. The militants also shot down a U.S. helicopter, killing two American soldiers.
The cult had planned its attack to coincide with the Shiite commemoration of Ashura. The focus of the holy day is the regional capital of Karbala, where a huge security presence prevented attacks, but Shiites everywhere took part with marches and prayers.
They also were targeted for killing.
In Baghdad, two civilians were killed and nine wounded when gunmen opened fire on two minibuses returning from Karbala.
In Diyala province, at least 32 people died in attacks on Shiite religious festivals. In Baladroz, a suicide bomber killed 16 people and injured 57 when he detonated himself in the middle of a religious parade. Eleven people were killed in Khanaqeen when a roadside bomb detonated during a parade there. Snipers killed another four: a girl from one family and three members of another family. A man was killed and five were wounded when mortar fire struck a parade in the Abu-Saida district of Diyala.
Near the oil town of Beiji, in Salah Ad Din province, Iraqi security forces said they'd killed three leaders of an al-Qaida group, including a Libyan, and arrested 59 others. The two dead Iraqis, both from Anbar province, were Abu Abdul Rahman and Abu Abdul Azeez. The Libyan wasn't named.
The insurgents had been caught at a camp disguised as a company that built communications towers, and cars, fuel tanks and American and Iraqi currency were seized, according to Ahmed Abid al-Jalbori, the province's deputy governor for security affairs. One Iraqi policeman was killed and four injured in the confrontation.
(McClatchy Newspapers special correspondent Qassim Zein in Najaf contributed to this report.)
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.