BAGHDAD – Police on Wednesday announced the arrest of a leading figure in a messianic Shiite cult that has battled with Iraqi and U.S. 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.
The arrest came as the Iraqi government made final preparations for what it considers a restoration of its full sovereignty when a new security agreement with the United States goes into effect on New Year's Day. Under the agreement, Iraqi authorities will have oversight over U.S. 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 Jan. 1 as a "historic day" during which "the symbols of sovereignty, which are highly cherished by Iraqis, will be restored."
But violence persisted in some parts of Iraq Wednesday, with eight people killed in four bombings in the north.
Police said two bombs targeting a police patrol in the northern city of Mosul killed two bystanders and wounded nine others. 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 Iraq soldiers and wounded two others, police said.
U.S. 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, Police Chief Maj. Gen. Adil Dahham said his forces had arrested a leader of the "Soldiers of Heaven" cult that has carried out bloody attacks during the Shiite 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 Shiite Muslims. It marks the death of Islam's Prophet Muhammad's grandson Imam Hussein.
According 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.
He 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.
"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 told The Associated Press. "They planed 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 Muhammad who disappeared as a child in the ninth century. Shiites 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 Shiite 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.
Staring Thursday, Iraqi police and army will take the lead and U.S. troops will need their approval to conduct operations. U.S. forces will also have to obtain warrants before they can arrest anyone and will no longer be able to act unilaterally.
The new U.S.-Iraq security pact also calls on U.S. troops to withdraw from Iraqi cities by the end of June 2009 and to leave Iraq by the end of 2011.
Iraqi officials have hailed the agreement as a restoration of Iraqi sovereignty after nearly six years of occupation following the 2003 invasion. On Jan. 1, Iraq will take control of its airspace and the Green Zone — a heavily fortified enclave surrounded by cement walls that extends over four square miles (10 square kilometers) of downtown Baghdad and encompasses the U.S. Embassy and the seat of the Iraqi government.
"From the first day of the occupation, some resorted to arms to get the foreign forces out, but as a government, our plan was to find ways to fill the political vacuums and to restore sovereignty peacefully without resorting to violence," al-Maliki adviser al-Rikabi said.