The chief U.S. military spokesman in Iraq insisted Wednesday that Muqtada al-Sadr has left the country and is believed to be in Iran, despite denials from the radical Shiite cleric's supporters.
The statement by Maj. Gen. William Caldwell came after a U.S. official said al-Sadr left the country some weeks ago and is believed to be in Tehran, where he has family.
The official, who also spoke 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 is not believed to be permanent, the official said.
Lawmakers and officials linked to al-Sadr quickly denied that he had left the country, with one saying the cleric had met with government officials late Tuesday in the Shiite holy city of Najaf.
Caldwell declined to comment on the reasons al-Sadr had left the country or give more details.
"We will acknowledge that he is not in the country and all indications are in fact that he is in Iran," Caldwell told reporters in Baghdad.
The U.S. report on al-Sadr's departure coincided 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.
A close aide who meets regularly with him said al-Sadr was not in Tehran. The aide said the U.S. report probably stems from a campaign by al-Sadr's people to put out false information about his movements amid fears he will be detained by U.S.-led forces. The cleric also is sleeping in different places each night, the aide said.
An official in al-Sadr's main office in the Shiite holy city of Najaf said the cleric had decided not to appear publicly during the current month of Muharam, one of four holy months in the Islamic calendar.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to disclose the information.
In other developments:
"The news was not accurate because Muqtada al-Sadr is still in Iraq and he did not visit any country," al-Rubaie told The Associated Press.
The U.S. official said it was not clear how firmly the radical Shiite cleric was controlling his organization and the associated Mahdi Army militia.
"The question for us is to what extent his organization is going to participate in the political process," the official said, referring to al-Sadr's on-again, off-again relationship with the fragile democratic government in Baghdad.
Al-Sadr's militia is widely seen as the main threat to Iraq's unity and high on the list of targets for the Baghdad security operation.
A ragtag but highly motivated militia that fought U.S. forces twice in 2004, the Mahdi Army is blamed for much of the sectarian strife shaking Iraq since a Shiite shrine was bombed by Sunni militants a year ago.
U.S. officials have for months pressed Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to move against the militia, but he has so far done little to comply, largely because he does not want to lose al-Sadr's support.
Al-Sadr rose from obscurity after the ouster of Saddam Hussein to lead a movement of young, underprivileged Iraqis united by opposition to U.S. military presence as well as hunger for Shiite domination.
The cleric, who is in his mid-30s, is a master of street politics, and his young lieutenants can rally tens of thousands of protesters at short notice. Once wanted in the 2003 killing of a key cleric, al-Sadr gained much influence when his parliamentary bloc of 30 of 275 deputies was instrumental in al-Maliki's election.
Dismissed by older Shiite politicians as a dangerous upstart, al-Sadr set up the Mahdi Army militia in 2003. It is suspected of being behind the abduction and murder of thousands of Sunnis in what are known as death squad killings.
Two key members of al-Sadr's political and military organization were gunned down last week, the latest of as many as seven key figures in the al-Sadr organization killed or captured in the past two months.
The deaths and captures came after al-Maliki, also a Shiite, dropped his protection for the organization.
Shiite leaders insist the Shiite militias flourished because the U.S. and its allies could not protect civilians. They say that if the Sunni insurgents were crushed, the threat from Shiite hard-liners would go away.
Shiite politicians have long maintained that Sunni militants pose a greater threat to Iraq's stability. Thousands of Shiite civilians have been killed in bombings and suicide attacks carried out by al Qaeda in Iraq and other Sunni groups.
Thousands regularly cross the porous Iraq-Iran border, and Iran has been a popular destination for elite Shiite Iraq exiles. In Saddam's time those exiles included al-Maliki, who like other educated and politically active Shiites feared for his safety in Iraq.