( Los Angeles Times ) - Security official Abu Ali has reviewed hundreds of documents about the obscure Messianic cult that incited a deadly clash last weekend at the height of Shiite Islam's most important holiday.
The group, Abu Ali and other security and government officials say, wants to spark a war among Shiites.
Officials said Supporters of the Mahdi disrupted Shiite worshipers last weekend in Basra and Nasiriyah in violent outbreaks that left at least 80 people dead. In similar battles in January 2007, hundreds of members of the Heaven's Army cult were killed.
Najaf province spokesman Ahmed Da'aibil accused such groups of being terrorists whose aim is "to assassinate the clerics to shake security, stability and the political status of the government."
The extremists are not associated with al-Qaida but are a "real source of threat to the stability in southern Iraq," according to Maj. Gen. Kevin Bergner, the U.S. military spokesman in Iraq.
All week, police and soldiers have treated suspected members of Supporters of the Mahdi as dangerous criminals, raiding homes in the southern cities of Basra and Nasiriyah. More than 250 suspected group members have been detained.
Police cut off a border crossing and nabbed at least seven suspects headed toward Iran. Stockpiles of ammunition, weapons and explosives also have been confiscated.
Authorities have been poring over the group's Web site, which claims responsibility for the assassination of the Babil police chief, the bombing of a shrine and other violent acts.
Its bi-monthly newspaper, "The Straight Path," expresses Messianic beliefs and suggests that Mahdi supporters must rise up and "kill the enemies of God until God is pleased," according to an article in the Sept. 27 edition.
Most Shiites believe the Mahdi is their 12th imam and a descendant of the prophet Muhammad who they say went into hiding in 878 and will return.
A 48-year-old Shiite who lives in Zubair, south of Basra, said Supporters of the Mahdi tried to recruit him twice -- in 2001 and 2004. The second time, the group had more financial backing, he said.
"I was surprised when this group changed to an armed group and fought the security forces," said the man, who asked that his name not be used because he feared for his safety. "Now I realize I was on the right track when I refused to join them."
Abu Tabarak, who said he knows members of Supporters of the Mahdi, said he believes most of the group members are ethical -- but close-minded -- people. Tabarak, who lives in Basra, said he believes the group lost potential followers by sparking death and mayhem on the Shiite religion's holiest occasion.
Experts who study politics and religion in southern Iraq said the emergence of such groups underscores the struggle for power among Shiite leaders and the different ideologies within the religion.
If a leader like radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr somehow lost power, the door could open for these splinter groups, said Vali Nasr, an international politics professor and Iraq expert at Tufts University.
Reidar Visser, a historian and expert on southern Iraq who edits the Web site historiae.org, said he believes the Iraqi government is overreacting to a small minority group. There has been no decisive proof that the Mahdists have risen in revolt, Visser said.
Abu Zainab Kanaani, leader of the Basra branch of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, said Supporters of the Mahdi does not pose a threat to Iraqi political leadership -- today or in the future.
"This is a terrorist group," Kanaani said. "Their ideas and creed are far from the Iraqi reality and the Iraqi society."
On Arabia TV on Friday, Shiite lawmaker Iyad Jamaluddin, from the secular Iraqiya slate, said the government should be careful how it characterizes the splinter group.
"The Iraqi constitution insures the freedom of thoughts and expression, and it's not the government's right to describe (the group) as blasphemous," Jamaluddin said. "Even al-Qaida has not been described as this."
Special correspondent Fakhrildeen reported from Najaf and staff writer Yoshino from Baghdad. Staff writers Saif Hameed and Tina Susman in Baghdad contributed to this report.