( dpa ) - A shadowy messianic Shiite cult which saw many of its followers either killed or arrested in clashes a year ago has re- emerged in southern Iraq where over the weekend it engaged in a fresh round of violence.
The Soldiers of Heaven sect on Friday launched simultaneous attacks in the cities of Basra and Nasiriyah, targeting police as well as worshippers participating in the Shiite religious ceremony of Ashura.
Over 70 people were killed, including senior police and army officers, more than 100 were wounded and 300 arrested over the last days.
The latest attacks came almost a year after the group fought pitched battles with US and Iraqi forces near Najaf, in which up to 300 of its followers were killed and hundreds more arrested.
"The military blows that the group received last year seem to have had little result," said Shiite former oil minister Ibrahim Bahr al- Ulum. "It is now important to deal with it differently. The religious authority should uncover its ways."
It was last year's Battle of Zarqa that first thrust the obscure group into the limelight.
Military experts were surprised by the intensity of fighting and the sophistication of the weapons in the battle, in which Iraqi troops were forced to call for urgent US air support against the Soldiers of Heaven.
Equally surprising was the account given by the authorities about an alleged plot by the Soldiers of Heaven, and their mysterious beliefs.
Zarqa, where the group's charismatic leader, Dia Abdel-Zahra, had gathered hundreds of his supporters in an encampment, is only 20 kilometres north-east of the holy city of Najaf, the seat of Shiite Islam's highest religious authority.
Iraqi authorities said Abdel-Zahra's heavily-armed followers planned to take over Najaf during the religious ceremony of Ashura and declare the return of the Mahdi.
A messiah-like figure in Shiite Islam, the Mahdi is believed to have disappeared hundreds of years ago. His return will allegedly herald an era of peace and justice before the Doomsday.
"This group penetrates the ranks of ordinary people and uses their economic conditions and widespread unemployment to get them involved in carrying out its goals. This is a danger that we have to be aware of," Bahr al-Ulum said.
Soldiers of Heaven followers - mainly poor and uneducated farmers from the underprivileged classes of Shiite-dominated southern Iraq - had come to believe that Abdel-Zahra was the awaited Mahdi, according to the official account.
The plot was foiled after a fierce battle in which according to official figures some 263 cult members died, including Abdel-Zahra. Hundreds of his followers, including women and children, were rounded up and imprisoned across the south over the last year. Some were executed.
Among the detained were Sunni Muslims and foreign fighters, the authorities claimed.
They also said the group had links with members of Iraq's toppled Baath party and Iyad Allawi, a former secular prime minister and a political foe of the incumbent Shiite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.
Those alleged unholy alliances added to the mystery surrounding the Soldiers of Heaven.
The authorities even went as far as claiming this week that the group had links to Israel.
A member of the security committee in the local government of Basra, Kasim Fiad, said after the arrest of members of the group this week: "We seized documents that have the Israeli Star of David, which creates strife and instability in the city."
Out of the inconsistencies and puzzles surrounding the Soldiers of heaven, some Iraqi sources have come to believe that the group's founder, Ahmed Ibrahim al-Silmi, also known as al-Yamani, is an engineer who was a prisoner of war in Saudi Arabia during the US-led war to liberate Kuwait from Iraqi troops in 1991.
After his release from prison, al-Yamani studied Shiite theology in Najaf before forming his cult group.
The emergence of the Soldiers of Heaven signals the growing number of splinter groups in Iraq that complicate the situation in a country already divided along sectarian and ethnic lines.
According to a study published last year by the US-based Rand Corporation, 28 splinter groups had formed since the US-led invasion in 2003.