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U.S.: Militant Cleric Fled Iraq For Iran

A radical anti-American cleric fled Iraq for Iran ahead of a security crackdown in Baghdad and President George W. Bush's influx of 21,500 U.S. troops, a senior U.S. official said Tuesday.

Muqtada al-Sadr left his Baghdad stronghold some weeks ago, the official said. Al-Sadr is believed to be in Tehran, where he has family. The official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss U.S. monitoring activities, said fractures in al-Sadr's political and militia operations may be part of the reason for his departure. The move probably is not permanent, the official said.

Word of al-Sadr's departure coincides with an announcement that Iraq will close its borders with Iran and Syria for 72 hours as part of the drive to end the violence that has threatened to divide the capital along sectarian lines.

Meanwhile, the top U.S. military officer said Tuesday the discovery that roadside bombs in Iraq contained material made in Iran does not necessarily mean the Iranian government was involved in supplying insurgents.

The comments by Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called into question assertions by three senior U.S. military officials in Baghdad on Sunday who said the highest levels of Iranian government were responsible for arming Shiite militants in Iraq with the bombs, blamed for the deaths of more than 170 troops in the U.S.-led coalition.

White House spokesman Tony Snow said Monday he was confident the weaponry was coming with the approval of the Iranian government.

Pace told reporters in the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, that U.S. forces hunting militant networks in Iraq that produced roadside bombs had arrested Iranians and some of the materials used in the devices were made in Iran.

"That does not translate that the Iranian government per se, for sure, is directly involved in doing this," Pace said. "What it does say is that things made in Iran are being used in Iraq to kill coalition soldiers."

In other developments:

  • The House of Representatives began an emotional debate Tuesday on whether President Bush's decision to add more U.S. troops to the nearly four-year-old war in Iraq is a mistake that has to be reversed.
  • A suicide truck bomber blew himself up near a college and a ration office in a mainly Shiite area of the capital Tuesday, killing at least 15 people, officials said, a day after car bombs devastated a Baghdad marketplace. Tuesday's attack, which also wounded 27 people, was the latest in a series of bombings that came despite a U.S.-Iraqi security crackdown aimed at stopping the sectarian violence that has killed hundreds since the start of the year.
  • Iraq will close its borders with Syria and Iran for 72 hours as part of the drive to secure and pacify Baghdad, the Iraqi commander of the crackdown said Tuesday. Lt. Gen. Abboud Gambar, addressing the nation on behalf of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, did not say when the borders would be closed. A government official said it was expected within two days.
  • Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki told Iraqi state television that the security operation would begin in the next day or two. The U.S. military announced last week that the sweep was already in progress. But an al-Maliki aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject, said the operation had not yet begun, as far as the Iraqi government was concerned.
  • The U.S. military said a soldier was killed Sunday in fighting in volatile Anbar province, west of Baghdad, raising to 42 the number of American deaths this month.

    On Monday, Gen. Pace said he had no firm knowledge that the Iranian government had sanctioned the arming of the Iraqi insurgents.

    "It is clear that Iranians are involved, and it's clear that materials from Iran are involved, but I would not say by what I know that the Iranian government clearly knows or is complicit," Pace told the Voice of America.

    Iran denied it gave sophisticated weapons to militants to attack U.S. forces.

    "Such accusations cannot be relied upon or be presented as evidence. The United States has a long history in fabricating evidence. Such charges are unacceptable," Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini told reporters in Tehran.

    The Joint Chiefs chairman is the senior military adviser to the president, but he commands no troops and is not in the chain of command that runs from the president to the secretary of defense to commanders in the field.

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