BAGHDAD, Jan. 31 (UPI) -- Doubts are emerging over U.S. and Iraqi claims that hundreds of people killed in a battle in Najaf belonged to the "Soldiers of Heaven" messianic cult.
Iraqi security forces, with U.S. military support, are said to have killed 263 people and wounded 210.
But the authoritative Baghdad daily Azzaman and an Iraq website report that the story is a cover up for an unpremeditated massacre.
Patrick Cockburn of the London Independent writing from Baghdad called the official account "a fabrication."
The official version of the incident says Iraqi soldiers battled members of the messianic cult who were planning to disrupt the Shiite holy festival of Ashura. However, independent reports indicate the fighting occurred when members of the Hawatim tribe, on their way to the celebrations in Najaf, were attacked by Iraqi soldiers.
The report from Baghdad says a clash broke out between the Shiite tribe members on a pilgrimage to Najaf and an Iraqi army checkpoint, when Iraqi soldiers fired on a car killing the tribe's chief, his wife and their driver.
The tribesmen are reported to have retaliated by attacking the Iraqi military checkpoint. The Iraqis, claiming they were under attack from al-Qaida called for U.S. support.
One American helicopter was hit and crashed killing two U.S. soldiers.
Reporters have been prevented from reaching the area making impossible for independent verification of the accounts. It would, however, explain the vast disparity between government casualties, who suffered less than 25 killed, and the 263 dead on the other side.