As Moslem pilgrims head for the Shiite shrines in Najaf and Karbala to observe the feast of Ashura, a small millenarian cult known as the Soldiers of Heaven was suspected of planning a massacre in order to usher in the end of the world. The Story of the Day featured conflicting reports about its clash with the Iraqi Army while the USAF dropped bombs in support. Some 200 of its 600 devotees were reportedly killed in the date palm orchards north of Najaf. NBC, however, was the only network to lead with the fighting.

NBC's Jane Arraf in Baghdad reported that the cult was heavily armed with mortars, Katyusha rockets and automatic weapons, and included a mixture of Shiites, Sunnis and foreign fighters. "The group planned to assassinate the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most revered cleric in Iraq," Arraf's unnamed sources in the Iraqi government told her. "The group believed the resulting violence would bring on the apocalypse." Arraf said that the Soldiers of Heaven may not be unique: "Iraq has become a magnet for all sorts of groups that are not on anybody's radar."

CBS' Lara Logan told us that mopping up operations are difficult because soldiers have to "separate suspected militants from thousands of pilgrims that have flooded the south of Iraq." Her sources in the US military could not confirm the religious cult story since "they did not know exactly whom they were fighting…they no longer have any presence in Najaf."

ABC compounded the confusion by filing its report from the Pentagon. Its military consultant Jack Keane, the retired general, referred to the armed group not as cultists but "insurgents." Jonathan Karl's (subscription required) unnamed military sources called them "Shiite extremists" or "a bunch of thugs." Karl concluded that "this illustrates just how difficult it is to understand the enemy in Iraq."


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