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Where Is Muqtada Al-Sadr?

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:

  • Challenged on the accuracy of U.S. intelligence, President Bush said Wednesday there is no doubt the Iranian government is providing armor-piercing weapons to kill American soldiers in Iraq. But he backed away from claims the top echelon of Iran's government was responsible. Mr. Bush, at a news conference, also said he would fight any attempt by the Democratic-controlled Congress to cut off money for the war. "They need to fund our troops and the need to make sure we have the flexibility necessary to get the job done," he said. The House is expected to vote Friday on a nonbinding resolution opposing President Bush's decision to send 21,500 additional troops to Iraq.
  • A Shiite militant group has released a video of an Iraqi-American soldier who was kidnapped nearly four months ago while visiting his wife in downtown Baghdad, an American television network reported Wednesday. The U.S. government has offered a $50,000 reward leading to the recovery of Iraqi-born American Army translator Ahmed Qusai al-Taayie, a 41-year-old reserve soldier from Ann Arbor, Michigan, who was abducted by gunmen on Oct. 23.
  • A U.S. soldier died Wednesday after coming under small arms fire a day earlier from insurgents while on patrol north of Baghdad, the military said. Separately, another soldier died Tuesday in a non-combat-related incident that is under investigation, it said.
  • A Sea Knight helicopter that crashed last week northwest of Baghdad was shot down, the U.S. military said Wednesday, reversing earlier statements that it appeared to have been due to mechanical failure. The Marine CH-46 troop transport went down northwest of Baghdad on Feb. 7, killing all seven people on board, and an al Qaeda-linked Sunni group claimed responsibility and aired a showing a helicopter shot down, which military officials have called very convincing. "Initial evidence indicated that the CH-46 Sea Knight helicopter went down as a result of mechanical failure. After further investigation using all available means, the cause of the incident has been confirmed to be hostile fire," said Maj. Jeff Pool, a spokesman for the Multi National Force — West.
  • The Bush administration plans to allow about 7,000 Iraqi refugees to settle in the United States over the next year, a huge expansion of a program at a time when this country is facing international pressure to help some of the millions of refugees who have fled their battle-torn Mideast nation. The United States has allowed only 463 Iraq refugees into the country since the war began. A senior State Department official described the expanded program on condition of anonymity ahead of a formal announcement later Wednesday.
  • A Marine has pleaded guilty to conspiracy and kidnapping in the slaying of an Iraqi man who was dragged from his home last April and shot, but he denied murdering the victim, a charge prosecutors will dismiss if he testifies for the government. Lance Cpl. Robert Pennington, 22, told a court-martial Tuesday that he knew the kidnapping was wrong, but he participated because he and his fellow Marines were tired of suspected insurgents escaping the justice system.
  • French counterterrorism police arrested nine suspects in a pre-dawn sweep on Wednesday aimed at breaking up an alleged al-Qaida-linked recruiting network to send radical Islamic fighters to Iraq, the Interior Ministry said. The nine were all from southwestern France. Two of the suspects were arrested at Orly airport in Paris after returning from abroad, the ministry said in a statement, without saying where they had come from or where the others had been taken into custody.
  • Lawmaker Nassar al-Rubaie, head of the Sadrist bloc in Iraq's parliament, also denied the U.S. report.

    "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.

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