U.S.: Al-Sadr Still In Iran

The radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, gestures while delivering a Friday sermon in Iraq in this 2006 file photo. AP Photo/Alaa Al-Marjani

The U.S. military spokesman in Iraq said on Wednesday that all indications showed that radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr remained in Iranian exile as of 24 hours ago.

The anti-American religious leader, who heads the Mahdi Army militia, was first reported by the Americans to be absent from Iraq on Feb. 13, when the latest U.S.-Iraq security drive opened in Baghdad.

"He's a very significant part of this political process. We do continue to track his whereabouts," Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell said at a briefing to mark the end of the first month of the security drive.

Iraqi officials with ties to al-Sadr have denied the militia leader fled Iraq.

The spokesman expressed particular concern about a spike last week in the number of what he called "high-profile" car bombings.

"If the high-profile car bombs can be stopped or brought down to a much lower level, we'll just see an incredible difference in the city overall. Murders and executions have come down by over 50 percent. ... But the high-profile car bombs is the one we're really focused on because that's what will start that whole cycle of violence again," Caldwell said.

The Mahdi Army has melted away and not confronted U.S. forces as American and Iraqi troops launched the third crackdown on sectarian violence in the capital in less than a year.

There was great concern the operation would force an all-out showdown with al-Sadr's forces in their Sadr City stronghold in eastern Baghdad, but that has not materialized.

As a result of the diminished presence of the Mahdi Army, the daily death toll of execution-style murders has dropped significantly.

That is part of a group of statistics that prompted Caldwell and U.S. ChargDe d'Affaires Daniel Speckhard to issue cautiously optimistic evaluations of the first month of the crackdown.

"By the indicators that the government of Iraq has, it has been extremely positive. But I would caution everybody about patience, about diligence. This is going to take many months, not weeks, but the indicators are all very positive right now," Caldwell said.

Meanwhile suicide bombers struck a market in northern Iraq and an Iraqi military checkpoint in Baghdad on Wednesday, killing at least 10 people, while an Iraqi general warned extremists that they will be "smashed under the foot of the Iraqi people" if they resist efforts to end the violence in the country.

In the worst attack, a man wearing an explosives belt strolled into an outdoor market in Tuz Khormato, 130 miles north of Baghdad, and blew himself up.

The blast occurred just before noon as the market was crowded with shoppers in the city, which has a mixed population with a slight majority of Turkomen. At least eight people were killed and 25 were wounded, police said.

Northern Iraq has seen a recent rise in violence that many blame on insurgents fleeing a security crackdown in the capital that began a month ago.

In western Baghdad, meanwhile, a suicide car bomber slammed into an Iraqi army checkpoint in the Sunni neighborhood of Yarmouk, killing two civilians and wounding four others, police said.

In other developments:

  • Iraqi President Jalal Talabani flew out of Jordan on Wednesday to return to his country after more than two weeks of treatment in an Amman hospital. A reporter who saw Talabani board the plane said the president smiled and joked as he said goodbye to Prime Minister Marouf al-Bakhit and other Jordanian officials. Talabani collapsed on Feb. 25 in Iraq. Jordanian doctors later diagnosed him to be suffering from exhaustion and dehydration caused by lung and sinus infections.

  • The bodies of Saddam Hussein's sons and a grandson were exhumed and reburied near the ousted leader's grave in Ouja, his hometown north of Baghdad. Saddam was hanged on Dec. 30 and buried the next. Tribal officials said they decided to move the remains of Saddam's sons Odai, 39, and Qusai, 37, and his 14-year-old grandson Mustafa — who died July 22, 2003, in a gun battle with U.S. troops in the northern city of Mosul — to keep all members of the family in one place.

  • Police say a municipal council chief and three other people were shot to death as they drove in the Sunni neighborhood of Azamiyah in Baghdad. Gunmen attacked a Sunni mosque in Iskandariyah, 30 miles south of Baghdad. The mosque was severely damaged, it was empty and there were no casualties. The head of the local Iraqi Red Crescent Society branch, Jassim al-Jubouri, in Tikrit was abducted by gunmen on Monday night.

    The commander of the Baghdad security plan, Lt. Gen. Abboud Qanbar, warned Wednesday that all terrorists and outlaws "will be smashed with the foot of the Iraqi people" unless they reconsider their "position and return to logic before it's too late."

    Qanbar also sought to reassure the capital's residents that the military is not discriminating in the crackdown, despite complaints by Sunnis that their neighborhoods have been unfairly targeted by the Shiite-dominated government.

    He said the effort had made headway in ending the sectarian violence that surged following the Feb. 22, 2006, bombing of a Shiite mosque in Samarra.

    "We've overcome the terrorist acts, militant groups, criminal gangs, sectarian killings and displacement," he said at a press conference in the heavily fortified Green Zone. "We've passed to the other side and members of our armed forces are hunting down the terrorists and criminal gangs on the ground and in their dens."

    "But we have to expect more obstacles and terrorist acts," he said. "These acts will not end immediately, but we will go forward with our operations until we annihilate the terrorism."

    The U.S. military also has stepped up its presence with more than 20,000 extra American troops sent to Baghdad and surrounding areas as part of the security bid, which many have warned is a last chance to quell the violence.
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      Scott Conroy is a National Political Reporter for RealClearPolitics and a contributor for CBS News.

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