WASHINGTON — Early today, aides to anti-American Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada Sadr denied reports that he had left Iraq and was thought to be in Tehran, where he has relatives.
A U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Tuesday that Sadr had left his Baghdad stronghold weeks ago but probably would return. He said fractures in Sadr's political and militia operations were probably to blame for the cleric's departure.
Some Washington officials said Sadr's departure might have been prompted by President Bush's plan to add 21,500 troops to more than 135,000 already in Iraq. He was thought to have left before a security crackdown began in Baghdad.
Four Sadr aides said today that the cleric was in Iraq, with some saying he was in the city of Najaf but had reduced his public appearances for "security reasons."
They did not elaborate.
Sadr's Al Mahdi army, a ragtag but highly motivated militia that fought U.S. forces twice in 2004, is blamed for much of the sectarian violence that has shaken Iraq since the Golden Mosque, a Shiite shrine in Samarra, was bombed a year ago.
ABC News first reported that Sadr had left Iraq. It said the cleric fled because he feared he could be targeted by U.S. bombs. He also worried that problems in his organization threatened his safety, ABC reported.
U.S. officials have pressed Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, a Shiite, to move against Sadr's militia. He has done little to comply, largely because he does not want to lose Sadr's support, U.S. officials said.
Two key members of Sadr's movement were gunned down last week, the latest of as many as seven figures in the organization killed or captured in the last two months.