Monday, January 29, 2007

Heaven's Army

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.


Blogger Marcus Aurelius said...

The Boxer Rebellion in China had some of those same mystic elements to it. Their ritual of "boxing" was thought to make them immune to high speed lead.

I don't think we are going to be getting the straight story about this one anytime shortly.

I remember your story about Toothpick, the bit about Knock 3 Times has me chuckling. Kinda like in Apocalypse Now where the Air Cav unit blasts Wagner's Ride of The Valkyries on its attack run.

1/29/2007 02:59:00 PM  
Blogger Wu Wei said...

Putting the various reports together, it is clear this group was more than just a Shiite cult. It was supported by Saddam when he was in power. Reports indicate that some of the insurgents were Iraqi Sunnis, along with foreigners. The overall picture seems to be insurgents using a cult, as Saddam used to use it. Some people may have been relatively innocent, just fooled by the cult, while the leader may have been looking for power, and the insurgents provided him the muscle so that they could push the cult towards their goals, insurgent goals.

The experts who have been interviewed say that the cult's idea of killing all the current Shiite leaders and destroying Shiite holy places is heresy and is not part of the Shiite religion. It seems that the insurgents duped the cult into setting these bizarre goals.

1/29/2007 03:08:00 PM  
Blogger Charles said...

I remember your story about Toothpick, the bit about Knock 3 Times has me chuckling. Kinda like in Apocalypse Now where the Air Cav unit blasts Wagner's Ride of The Valkyries on its attack run.
Except The Air Cav had the goods. Toothpick did not.

When people are under pressure sometimes its hard for them to distinguish between courage and vain glory.

1/29/2007 04:15:00 PM  
Blogger RWE said...

Add this to the reports of Taliban recruits with only plastic bags on their feet being wiped out in droves in Afghanistan and you have to wonder what is going on.

Is this the equivalent of the Hitler Youth or the Kamikaze? The last gasp? Or are they disposing of the nuts that will be a liability when the Jihad victory is won?

Or perhaps, they, like the WWII Japanese, have come to believe that we Americans are so repelled by death that any death will do to discourage us - even theirs? If you listen to the Left you would certainly believe that.

1/29/2007 04:27:00 PM  
Blogger Boghie said...

I've always had a hard time telling the difference between the 'Heaven's Gate' movement and that of the 'Heaven's Army'.

A rather moot point in the end, eh...

1/29/2007 07:54:00 PM  
Blogger Alexis said...

The Kuwaiti News Agency claims that the leader of the “Soldiers of Heaven” had been arrested by Iran before being released into Iraq. According to HealingIraq, the same story came out from the Iraqi News Agency.

(If true, it reminds me of how German intelligence arranged for the transit of a certain Vladimir Lenin into Russia.)

Zeyad, from HealingIraq, refers to Iraqi rumors that the Mahdiyoun were set up by rival Shi’ite factions. Iraq the Model refers to a website called Sot al-Iraq claiming much the same thing. I find it rather intriguing that this movement uses the six-sided star in its imagery, although I don’t know what to make of it. If anybody is interested, I suppose one could ask “the guardian and envoy of the Imam Mahdi” whether his followers were killed near Najaf recently. If he were killed, though, that might make communication with him a bit more difficult. (I’m not very good at séances.)

It’s hard to figure out what’s going on. The most plausible explanations appear to be the weirdest ones. It’s practically enough to make one’s head spin.

1/30/2007 12:00:00 AM  
Blogger Bruce Dearborn Walker said...

When a more primitive people is dominated by a more advanced one, they first try fighting, then accomodation, then finally fantasy. Think the Ghost Shirt dancers at Wounded Knee:

"They said the shirts Messiah gave no bullet could go through

But when the soldiers fired at them they found this was not true."

Think the boxers eating paper with charms written on them, or practicing Iron Vest or Golden Bell kung fu, thinking it would protect them from bullets

Think Amok or Juramentado, or the Kamikazi, or Taigo Sakamori (the real "Last Samurai"), or the cargo cult. The Lord's Army, the Children's Crusade, (actually, most of the crusades) the Cathars, and that's just off the top of my head. The muslims in the middle east have a long history of this kind of behavior, and so does the rest of mankind.

The original Assassin's cult was one of these, too, although it was pretty successful before Hulagu Khan wiped them out, and even then one of their assassins poisoned him and his wife. The Alawite tribe is still influential in Syrian politics--the Assads are Alawites.

1/30/2007 07:23:00 PM  

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