Yesterday’s Firefight Was Against Cult

An interesting update on yesterday’s firefight near Najaf, in which 200 or more gunmen were reportedly killed, from Reuters: the attack was against members of a cult who were believed to be plotting to kill religious leaders in connection with the pilgrimage to Najaf:

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.
raqi troops, backed by U.S. forces, confronted the group after learning it was planning an attack on the Shi’ite clerical establishment in Najaf on Monday.
Authorities have been on alert for days 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, a cult which Iraqi officials said included both Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims as well as foreigners.

Reuters also unveils a new (as far as I know) way of referring to the sectarian conflict in Iraq. For the better part of a year, news media have described Iraq as “on the brink of civil war,” or “sliding toward civil war,” etc. Those predictions must have been wearing a little thin, and the violence that is ongoing, while sometimes horrific, plainly doesn’t amount to what is normally characterized as civil war. Hence Reuters’ new terminology:

Though Sunnis and Shi’ites are engaged in an embryonic sectarian civil war in Iraq, there have been instances in Islamic history where groups drawn from both communities have challenged the authority of the existing clerical leadership.

That clarifies matters greatly, I’m sure.
UPDATE: Blog of the Week Jules Crittenden notes that the intended target was reportedly Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani himself, the most senior Shia figure, and speculates about possible Iranian involvement.

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