The Small Wars Journal has an interesting discussion thread on the engagement in Najaf where 250 insurgents were killed. The identity of the enemy has been variously described as Sunni insurgents or a Shi'ite cult known as the "Soldiers of Heaven". Conflicting reports suggest they had heavy arms but had women and children with them. One Iraqi blogger, Healing Iraq, thinks the US was duped into annihilating a rag-tag faction in another internecine conflict. Others reports say some of the attackers had "Afghan robes". The LA Times reported cell phone video which showed Iraqi troops taking cover from pretty intense fire.
Ali Nomas, an Iraqi security official in Najaf, said the fighters belonged to a group calling itself Heaven's Army, one of several messianic cults that have appeared among Shiites who believe in the imminent return of Imam Mahdi, the last in the line of Shiite saints who disappeared more than 1,000 years ago. Nomas said the information came from interviews with at least 10 detained fighters.
"Everyday someone claims he's the Mahdi," he said.
Nomas said the leader of the hitherto unknown Heaven's Army had told followers that he was a missing son of the Imam Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of the prophet Muhammad. Ali's remains are entombed in Najaf.
"They believe that the Mahdi has called them to fight in Najaf," Nomas said, adding that fighters had converged on the Najaf area from other predominantly Shiite cities in Iraq.
He lamented that Iraq's death and destruction had convinced some Shiites that the end of days was coming.
"There's nothing bizarre left in Iraq anymore," Nomas said in a telephone interview. "We've seen the most incredible things."
Najaf Gov. Asad Abu Gulal said some of the fighters were members of Hussein's Baath Party.
Whatever organization these individuals belong to, they had serious firepower, as evidenced by the cell phone video and their ability to down a US helicopter. Their religious identity remains mysterious, what with the Afghan robes and reports that it was headed by the "Madhi". But bizarre events do happen in the Third World. It is not wholly impossible for a cult leader to assemble a group of people to engage in improbable behavior, whether it involves the Branch Davidian or the now-forgotten Lapiang Malaya. This article from Time Magazine in1967 describes that strange incident.
In the grubby streets of Pasay City, a suburb of Manila, a most unusual group of men gathered last week. They were members of an obscure political sect called Lapiang Malaya (Freedom Movement), and they were armed with long bolo knives and dressed in peculiar blue uniforms with red and yellow capes. At the command of their leader, an old (eightyish) fanatic named Valentin de los Santos, they had come up from their homes in the paddy fields of southern Luzon. Their mission: to march on the presidential palace in Manila and overthrow the government.
As they lined up for the march, troopers of the Philippine Constabulary blocked their path. The 380 or so warriors were unafraid. They believed that the pebbles that they held in their mouths rendered them immune to death.
Waving their bolos, they charged straight into the stuttering M-16s of the Constabulary. Within minutes, 33 of them lay dead, 47 wounded. The rest were arrested for sedition and put in prison.
In later years I had the opportunity to visit the religious roots of the Lapiang Malaya sect, which a casual observer would describe as "Christian", because to external appearances they decorated their amulets with nonsense Latin concatenations from old Catholic Missals. "In nomine domine mintuam dei gloria". In truth, the Lapiang Malaya was descended from a long line of cults like the Pulahans, which like the Madhi, seemed to disappear and then reappear in the stream of history. Readers of the Belmont Club may recall how I met a cultlike militia in Mindanao headed by another mystic named Toothpick, who promised his men immunity from bullets if they had a bottle of merthiolate hung from their neckss and advanced to the martial strains of Tony Orlando's Knock Three Times of the Ceiling if You Want Me. I don't know whether Heaven's Army is cut from the same cloth. But it will be an interesting issue to follow.