BAGHDAD, Iraq—A mysterious group of religious zealots who fought a fierce battle with American and Iraqi troops on Sunday were armed with AK-47 assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and five anti-aircraft machine guns rigged on tractors—raising questions about how a group with no known ties to Iraq's current cast of political organizations came to be so well equipped and trained.
"They fought according to a military arrangement, and they moved as platoons and companies," Abdul Hussein Abtan, the deputy governor of Najaf, said Monday.
Ali Nomas, a spokesman for the security forces in Najaf, said the militants, who numbered from 1,000 to 1,500, had purchased farms and surrounded them with a dirt barricade and a bulldozed trench. More than 2,000 AK-47 assault rifles and 700 rocket-propelled grenades were recovered after the battle, Nomas said.
Among the 300 or so militants killed in Sunday's fighting was the group's leader, Iraqi authorities said. As many as 400 others were arrested, including some dressed as Afghan fighters, Iraqi spokesmen said. U.S. officials put the number of arrests at more than 100.
A U.S. helicopter was shot down during the fighting. Both crewmen died.
Maj. Hussain Muhammed of the Iraqi army said some fighters escaped.
"We have information that a large number of fighters have escaped through the palm groves. Some were wearing the uniforms of the security forces and others were wearing black," Muhammed said.
Even in Iraq's volatile and violent brew of sectarian, political, tribal and ethnic factionalism, the explosive emergence of the religious group Soldiers of Heaven stands apart as a reminder of how little understanding there is of the country's complex web of militias.
The group's leader, who was known by several names, including his birth name of Thiya Abdul Zahra Kathum al-Qarawi, believed he was the earthly representative of the "Hidden Imam" of Shiite theology, Mohammed al-Mahdi.
Police said Monday that Qarawi, who reportedly was born in 1969 in Hilla, planned to attack the Shiite commemoration of Ashura on Tuesday in the holy city of Karbala, an event expected to draw as many as 2 million pilgrims.
Police said his motive in planning the assault was to hasten the return of the Mahdi, an event that Shiite theology predicts will lead to peace, justice and the conversion of the world to Islam.
Sunni Muslims don't believe in the Hidden Imam, but the concept is a driving force in Shiite belief. Fiery anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr drew the name for his Mahdi Army militia from that theology.
In the absence of hard evidence about the group and its connections, Iraqis have been speculating wildly and contradictorily, asserting that they recognize elements of Shiite, Sunni and other influences among the militants.
Asad abu Kalal, the governor of Najaf, said as much himself in a press conference on Monday.
"In external form, the way they look is Shiite, but its reality is something else," Kalal said. "They meant to destroy the Shiite and kill the Grand Marjiyas and occupy the Holy Shrine of Imam Ali," he said. The Grand Marjiyas are the four leading ayatollahs in Najaf. They are led by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's top Shiite cleric.
Kalal called the battle successful because the militants were unable to execute their attack.
Last month, U.S. forces turned over security for the Najaf region to provincial authorities. According to those authorities, the Soldiers of Heaven were already arming themselves on a series of farms they'd recently bought in the Zarqa area in Kufa, north of Najaf.
Abtan, Najaf's deputy governor, said only a few fighters lived on the farms and that they worked to build its battlements and caches. The others were summoned in the last few days. They arrived by infiltrating the area as pilgrims.
A U.S. military statement said that Iraqi security forces received a tip about the militants and moved north out of Najaf Sunday morning to confront them.
"A joint patrol was attacked by more than 200 gunmen with small-arms fire, rocket-propelled grenades and hand grenades," the statement said. The Iraqis asked for air support and the American commanders responded with jets and helicopters. When one of the helicopters was shot down, U.S. ground forces were called in.
Fighters from the 4th Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, from Fort Richardson in Anchorage, Alaska, and the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Infantry Regiment, from Fort Lewis, Wash., were dispatched to secure the crash site and recover the bodies of the two soldiers from the helicopter. The ground forces had to fight off the militants, who were trying to do the same, the statement said.
Security forces found hiding places at the farms, some occupied by families who'd been caring for the fighters, Nomas said. About 20 families were taken into custody for interrogation.
U.S. forces remained at the battlefield through Monday, clearing out the remaining militants.
Meanwhile, in Baghdad, violence returned to the Mustansiriyah University area on Monday. A morning explosion on a mini-bus killed four people and injured six. At 4 p.m., a car bomb exploded behind the university, injuring three. On Jan. 17, two bombs killed more than 70 students at the university.
Elsewhere, mortars fell around the city. At 6:30 p.m., a mortar attack in the Al-Zavaraniyah area of southern Baghdad killed 12 civilians near a local market and injured 28.
(Mauer, of the Anchorage Daily News, reported from Baghdad; McClatchy Newspapers special correspondent Ali reported from Karbala. Special correspondent Qassim Zein in Najaf contributed to this report.)
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.