BAGHDAD — Falling into a depression after her husband was killed last year, Iman immersed herself in religious studies and became fixated on a Shiite Muslim saint.
Soon, a secretive group of worshipers tried to recruit the young widow, telling her that she could help bring the holy figure back to Earth. All she had to do was sleep with the group's male followers.
Horrified, Iman, now 20, refused.
Her experience shines a light on the rise in Iraq of fanatical cults devoted to Imam Mahdi, the Shiites' 12th imam. A descendant of the prophet Muhammad, he disappeared more than 1,000 years ago.
The Shiite faithful believe that in the world's darkest hour, Imam Mahdi will return and bring justice and calm. But where mainstream Shiite believers wait patiently for that day, groups such as the one that tried to enlist Iman are convinced that they can hasten his reappearance by spreading chaos.
Devout Sunnis also believe in the Mahdi's coming, but do not think it involves the Shiite imam.
Already, two Shiite cults have tried to stage violent uprisings in Iraq. In January 2007, as many as 250 followers of a group called Heaven's Army were killed when they massed to attack the Shiite shrine city of Najaf. A year later, as many as 80 people died in battles with the police and army during a revolt in Basra by another cult, Supporters of the Mahdi.
Some experts speak of the cults nervously, afraid of being tracked down by the groups for talking about their mysterious practices.
Dr. Hassan, a psychology professor at Baghdad's Mustansiriya University who declined to give his full name because of worries about his safety, explained that some Iraqis had embraced conservative Shiite traditions with zeal after the 2003 ouster of Saddam Hussein, who had oppressed the country's Shiite majority.
"Before the war, the situation was different. To talk about religious things was forbidden and one could be arrested," Hassan said. "All these feelings bottled up inside and started to appear after Saddam's fall."
Iman, who also declined to give her full name, discovered the world of cults as she sought solace in religion in the months after her husband's death. A friend suggested she do something positive while waiting for Imam Mahdi's return.
"Her talks charmed me and made me think about heaven," Iman said. She opened up to her friend in a way she couldn't with her family. She told her friend how she had been lonely since her husband's death.
"I liked to talk about my needs as a woman, and we were joking about many things. Unfortunately, sometimes I went too far talking about things I should never have talked about, but I was just joking," she said.
The woman suggested that Iman sleep with her husband if she wanted to help speed up the Mahdi's return.
"I looked at her and laughed. I thought she was joking. I told her, 'No, he is too old for me. I want someone younger,' " Iman said. "She said, 'I'm serious -- all you have to do is sleep with my husband.' "
Others shared similar stories about the group, called Mumahidoon, or "those who prepare the way."
Abu Jassem said the group preyed upon him when he was unemployed.
His recruiter was a good friend who knew of his religious fervor, and of his need for money. The friend sweetened the deal with the promise of a stipend for joining the cult. But then he told Abu Jassem of the one catch: He had to let his fellow believers sleep with his wife, daughter and sister.
"I was stunned but didn't show my astonishment. Later I told them I refused the idea because these things were against my traditions and religion."
Although Iraqi security officials dismiss the idea that such cults pose a genuine threat, Hassan is not convinced. "The cults in our society," he warned, "could pose a danger."
Times staff writer Ned Parker contributed to this report.