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Iraqi troops clash with members of messianic Shiite cult in southern Iraq
Women and children attend a rally in central Baghdad, Iraq, Friday, Jan. 18, 2008. Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, the head of parliament's largest Shiite political bloc, accused the Iraqi government and legislators of allowing "personal whims" to delay efforts to promote national unity as thousands of worshippers rallied in central Baghdad to commemorate the death of Imam Hussein, one of the most revered saints. - photo by Associated Press
    BAGHDAD — Gunmen from a messianic Shiite cult attacked police and worshippers preparing Friday for a major Shiite holiday, prompting fierce clashes that left nearly 50 people dead in a major test for Iraqi security forces in oil-rich southern Iraq.
    Carrying yellow flags or wearing yellow headbands to show their allegiance to the Soldiers of Heaven cult, the gunmen attacked police stations and opened fire randomly on civilians in Basra and Nasiriyah.
    Last year, U.S. and Iraqi troops battled cult followers in fields outside the holy city of Najaf after determining that its members planned to disguise themselves as pilgrims and kill leading clerics.
    Basra police chief Maj. Gen. Abdul-Jalil Khalaf said 30 militants and six security forces were killed Friday, more than doubling the early toll. A police officer in Nasiriyah said at least 10 people were killed there.
    Authorities clamped a curfew on the two cities and security intensified in Najaf as more than a week of Ashoura observances were scheduled to climax Friday night through midday Saturday.
    Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s office said in a statement that a number of ‘‘heretics’’ had attacked Ashoura processions and attempted to take control of a ‘‘government institution’’ in Basra, while others attacked the commander of special forces and a number of his aides in Nasiriyah.
    It called the attacks part of a ‘‘criminal plot’’ to destabilize the area, which has seen a recent rise in rivalries among Shiite militias.
    U.S.-led forces have turned over control to the Iraqis in both the provinces of Basra and Dhi Qar, of which Nasiriyah is the capital. The ability of the Iraqis to maintain their own security is key to the U.S. strategy for eventual withdrawal from the country.
    Iraqi officials have stepped up security across much of the country to protect the Shiite processions for the holiday period, which commemorates the death of Imam Hussein, one of the Shiites’ most revered saints. In Baghdad, a 48-hour ban on heavy vehicles went into effect.
    Pilgrims poured into the Shiite holy city of Karbala, home to the tomb of Hussein, the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson who was killed during a seventh century battle in the area.
    People lined up to be searched at the entrance of the twin shrines of Hussein and his brother Abbas. Tents providing tea, milk, food and first aid filled the streets outside.
    Signaling continued political discord, a powerful Shiite politician accused the Iraqi government and legislators of allowing ‘‘personal whims’’ to delay national unity, addressing thousands of worshippers who rallied Friday in Baghdad to commemorate the death of one of the most revered Shiite saints.
    The criticism in Baghdad by Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, the head of parliament’s largest Shiite political bloc, was among his strongest to date.
    The intra-Shiite violence comes as a series of bombings that bear the hallmarks of Sunni militants in recent weeks have raised concerns about the sustainability of security gains made over the past six months.
    The Soldiers of Heaven cult gained national attention last year when U.S. and Iraqi troops battled its members after uncovering the group’s plot to kill as many leading clerics as possible in a bid to prompt the return of the Hidden Imam.
    The ‘‘Hidden Imam’’ is a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad who disappeared as a child in the ninth century and Shiites believe that he will return one day to bring justice to each.
    Street battles also broke out in Basra, another Shiite city 340 miles southeast of Baghdad.
    Basra police chief Maj. Gen. Abdul-Jalil Khalaf said those killed included two policemen, five gunmen, a 10-year-old boy and a woman doctor.
    Khalaf said the leader of the group in Basra, whom he identified as Abu Mustafa al-Ansari, was among those who died.
    ‘‘These terrorist groups have opened fire randomly on citizens and Shiite mourners and we are about to eliminate or arrest them,’’ said Mohammed al-Waili, the provincial governor. Police said 21 members of the group were detained.
    Critics have accused Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shiite-led government of failing to take advantage of the nationwide decline in violence to embrace minority Sunnis and make progress on the political front.
    Al-Hakim often has suggested he is displeased with the performance of the nearly 19-month-old al-Maliki government, of which the politician’s Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, or SIIC, is a major partner.
    Speaking behind bulletproof glass, al-Hakim called on the government and parliament to pass stalled legislation on provincial elections and the distribution of Iraq’s oil wealth, which are seen as vital to bringing Sunnis into the political process and stemming support for the insurgency.
    ‘‘What is regrettable is that the national reconciliation process has been subjected to personal whims,’’ al-Hakim said.
    He also criticized government institutions of accepting ‘‘corruption and bribes’’ and called for mechanisms that would ‘‘prevent the blackmail of the people.’’
    Associated Press writer Sameer N. Yacoub contributed to this report.

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