The occupation forces and their Iraqi allies last week claimed they had crushed a doomsday cult outside the Shia holy city of Najaf. This was, they said, the first victory in George Bush’s “surge” against the resistance in Iraq.
According to occupation authorities, US and British warplanes foiled an attempt by the Shia Muslim “Soldiers of Heaven” group to storm the city of Najaf on Saturday of last week.
It was all a lie.
An investigation by Iraq’s Azzaman newspaper and independent journalists Dahr Jamail and Ali al-Fadhily found that the victims were not fighters but Shia pilgrims on their way to the Ashoura religious commemoration.
US and British warplanes and helicopter gunships strafed people hiding in plantations and pilgrims who attempted to find refuge in the village of Zarqa.
The fighting began when a procession, which included men, women and children of the al-Hatami tribe, was fired on as it approached an Iraqi army checkpoint.
Five were killed, among them a tribal leader and his wife.
Jabbar al-Hatami, a chieftain of the al-Hatami, told Jamail and al-Fadhily, “We were going to conduct the usual ceremonies that we conduct every year when we were attacked by Iraqi soldiers.”
Hatami said they attempted to negotiate with the Iraqi troops.
“We thought it was one of the usual mistakes of the Iraqi army killing civilians,” he said. “So we advanced to explain to the soldiers that they killed five of us for no reason. But we were surprised by more gunfire.”
The pilgrims took refuge among date palms that line the main highway. Another tribe, the al-Khazali, came to their aid.
A member of the al-Khazali told the journalists, “Our convoy was close to the al-Hatami convoy on the way to Najaf when we heard the massive shooting. So we ran to help them because our tribe and theirs are bound with a strong alliance.”
The tribesmen, some in cars and others on foot, were armed because they were passing through dangerous areas on their way to Najaf.
When the pilgrims began to defend themselves, the Iraqi army called on US and British airpower, claiming that they were fighting Al Qaida, supporters of Saddam Hussein and the Soldiers of Heaven who had sophisticated weapons.
A local farmer who witnessed the massacre told the journalists that, “US helicopters participated in the slaughter. They were soon there to kill those pilgrims without hesitation. We just watched them getting killed, group by group, while trapped in those plantations.”
Tribal leaders say that 263 were killed and 210 were wounded. A further 600 were arrested.
Iraqi police reported that around 100 detainees were “Sunni terrorists” from Yemen, Algeria, Pakistan and Afghanistan. The claim was later withdrawn.
Film footage aired on Iraq’s Al-Sharqiya TV station the day after the massacre showed hundreds of men, women and children surrounded by Iraqi troops. No sophisticated weapons were found.
The Iraqi authorities revised their story claiming they had foiled an attack by the Soldiers of Heaven on the clerical leaders in Najaf.
A spokesman for Soldiers of Heaven denied any involvement in the fighting and called the story a fabrication.
According to Azzaman the tribes were attacked because of a dispute among Shia factions: “The slogans [the tribes] raised and the demands they made seem to have angered the government and prompted a violent response.”
Both tribes are critical of Shia leader Ayatollah Ali Sistani and Sciri, a US backed militia behind many sectarian massacres of Sunnis. They say this is why they were labelled as supporters of Saddam Hussein and Al Qaida.
Azzaman says that Iraqi authorities have banned journalists from talking to survivors.