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Iraqi Officials: Leader of Militant Cult Killed in Battle Near Najaf

Iraqi officials say the leader of an Islamic cult that was plotting to assassinate senior Shi'ite clerics was killed during a daylong battle near the holy city of Najaf on Sunday.

Officials say the man led the Soldiers of Heaven group, and that it planned to assassinate the clerics Monday during the Shi'ite observance of Ashura.

Cult members are both Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims. The leader claimed to be a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, and the group hoped to bring back the Mahdi, a messianic figure in Islam.

Iraqi forces, backed by U.S. tanks and airstrikes, attacked the group on Sunday. An Iraqi spokesman Mohammed al-Askari said today that at least 200 militants were killed in the battle. More than 100 were detained. Earlier, officials said 300 militants had been killed.

Iraqi police say bombings in Baghdad today killed at least five people, while a mortar attack south of the city killed 10 people.

The U.S. military says two American soldiers were killed when their attack helicopter crashed during the battle Sunday near Najaf.

Thousands of Iraqi soldiers and police are deploying around the city of Karbala to provide security for Shi'ite pilgrims gathering for Ashura.

Ashura marks the seventh century killing of the Shi'ite Imam Hussein, who was the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad. Shi'ites believe Hussein was the prophet's heir. Hussein's death solidified Islam's split into rival Sunni and Shi'ite branches.

Some information for this report was provided by AFP, AP and Reuters.