Iraq prepares for restoration of self-rule
Police announce arrest of Shi'ite cult leader
BAGHDAD - The Iraqi government made final preparations for what it considers a restoration of its full sovereignty when a new security pact with the United States goes into effect today.
Under the agreement, Iraqi authorities will have oversight over US military operations and formally assume control of the Green Zone in central Baghdad. A top adviser to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Sadiq al-Rikabi, described today as a "historic day" during which "the symbols of sovereignty, which are highly cherished by Iraqis, will be restored."
Police yesterday announced the arrest of a leading figure in a messianic Shi'ite cult that has battled with Iraqi and US forces, possibly thwarting plans by the group to carry out attacks against hundreds of thousands of pilgrims that will gather next week at one of Iraq's holiest shrines.
Violence persisted in some parts of Iraq yesterday, with eight people killed in four bombings in the north.
Two bombs targeting a police patrol in the northern city of Mosul killed two bystanders and wounded nine others, authorities said. A car bomb in nearby Sinjar killed four people and wounded 40, the town's mayor said. Another roadside bomb in the town of Khanaqin, near the Iranian border, killed two Iraqi soldiers and wounded two others, police said.
US and Iraqi forces continue to battle Al Qaeda in Iraq and other insurgents in the north and in Mosul, the country's third-largest city, where economic and political problems persist.
In the southern city of Basra, Major General Adil Dahham, the police chief, said his forces had arrested a leader of the "Soldiers of Heaven" cult that has carried out bloody attacks during the Shi'ite Ashura holiday the past two years.
Ashura, which falls on the 10th of Muharram under the Islamic lunar calendar - or Jan. 7 - is one of the most important holy days for Shi'ite Muslims. It marks the death of the Prophet Mohammed's grandson Imam Hussein.
According to Dahham, a man identified as Arshad Abid Dayem and four of his aides were arrested late Tuesday near the center of Iraq's second-largest city.
Dahham said police seized documents showing that the group planned to launch terrorist attacks in and around Karbala during Ashura. Karbala is home to the golden-domed mosques of Imam Hussein and his half-brother Imam Abbas, sons of the founding saint of the Shi'ite faith.
"The group has admitted during an investigation that they intended to carry out terrorist acts during Muharram days and particularly on the 10th of Muharram on Ashura," Dahham said. "They planned to carry out their acts against visitors in Karbala."
At least 72 people died - mostly cult members - in ferocious battles with police in 2008. The group has sought to invoke chaos as a means of inspiring the return of the "Hidden Imam" - also known as the Mahdi - a descendant of the Prophet Mohammed who disappeared as a child in the ninth century. Shi'ites believe he will return one day to bring justice to the world.
In 2007, more than 200 members of the "Soldiers of Heaven" cult were killed and 600 people arrested after battles near the Shi'ite holy city of Najaf as they sought to declare an Islamic state during Ashura. At least 11 Iraqi troops were killed along with two Americans, whose helicopter was shot down during the battle.
Starting today, the Iraqi police and army will take the lead, and US troops will need their approval to conduct operations. US forces will also have to obtain warrants before they can arrest anyone and will no longer be able to act unilaterally.
The new US-Iraq security pact also calls on US troops to withdraw from Iraqi cities by the end of June 2009 and to leave Iraq by the end of 2011.