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Cleric's whereabouts still hotly contested

Sadr is in Iraq, not Iran, an official says. The U.S. insists he fled to avoid the security crackdown.

February 15, 2007|Borzou Daragahi and Saif Hameed | Times Staff Writers

BAGHDAD — An Iraqi lawmaker with close ties to radical cleric Muqtada Sadr said Wednesday that he saw the Shiite Muslim leader four days ago in Iraq, continuing a war of words with U.S. officials over Sadr's whereabouts.

U.S. officials told reporters this week that the anti-American cleric had left Iraq weeks ago, possibly to avoid a security crackdown getting underway in Baghdad.

The security plan, dubbed Operation Law and Order, became more visible Wednesday as U.S. warplanes flew over Baghdad and ground forces conducted what military officials called "intelligence-focused searches" and raids in several parts of the capital.

The military said 14 suspects were detained and four weapons caches were discovered.

U.S. Army Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV, spokesman for the U.S.-led forces in Iraq, said the security plan would begin slowly and take months to show results.

"It would be a mistake if expectations were so high that the plan wasn't given time to succeed," he said. "We'll see results in the June-July time frame."

The plan aims to place U.S. troops in neighborhood security stations in an attempt to halt the spread of sectarian violence.

Sadr's Al Mahdi army is one of the main militias involved in the violence. It has clashed at times with U.S.-led forces, and American commanders seemed eager to spread the word that the cleric might have fled the country. The claim potentially could undermine Sadr's leadership role among the young Shiite men who make up his supporters.

Lawmaker Fattah Sheik said in an interview that he met with the cleric in the holy city of Najaf, where Sadr lives.

"The media are trying to say he escaped to Iran," said Sheik, a Shiite and Sadr loyalist. "It is totally false. I was talking with the office manager and he told me that his eminence was laughing about the news."

Iraqi officials often spend time in Jordan, Syria and Iran, as well as in Western countries, to escape the misery and violence in their country. But reports of Sadr's departure were met with angry denials by his supporters, including the head of his parliamentary faction in Baghdad and his deputies in Najaf.

"The Americans want to shake the foundations that are connected with his eminence," said Abdul-Razzaq Nedawi, a Sadr loyalist in Najaf. "A leader present in the middle of a battle gives his soldiers momentum. If he escapes, morale will break down."

Caldwell repeated U.S. assertions that Sadr had left his home in Najaf for Iran in recent weeks. He declined to elaborate on why Sadr might have left Iraq.

"We obviously track Muqtada Sadr very closely," he said. "We will acknowledge that he is not in the country and all indications are that he is in Iran and left sometime last month."

Sadr's supporters acknowledged that he had not appeared in public for weeks, but said he wanted to keep a low profile during the Shiite holy period marking the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, a grandson of the prophet Muhammad, which ended two weeks ago.

U.S. and Iraqi officials think Sadr's loosely organized Al Mahdi army has evolved into a collection of armed gangs terrorizing people. A videotape released Wednesday showed U.S. Army Reserve Spc. Ahmed Qusai Taei, who reportedly was abducted in October, pleading for his release from a group claiming ties to the cleric's militia.

Such videos often emerge during protracted ransom negotiations between kidnapping rings and families of victims.

Violence continued across the country.

Four U.S. troops died of injuries sustained from explosions near their vehicle in Diyala province, the military said.

A U.S. soldier died in Baghdad of wounds suffered from small-arms fire, and a sixth soldier was killed Tuesday in a noncombat incident in northern Iraq, the military said.

The deaths brought to 3,127 the U.S. military toll since the March 2003 invasion, according to

Authorities in the capital found the bodies of five Iraqis. A car bomb near a Baghdad children's hospital killed four people and injured 10.

Another car bomb in Baghdad killed one person and injured seven. A roadside bomb attack killed an Iraqi police officer and injured three.

Mortar rounds hit a village north of the capital, killing one person and injuring 16. Gunmen shot and killed two Oil Ministry employees in south Baghdad.

A suicide car bomb attack in Ramadi, west of the capital, killed at least seven people and injured 22, a police official said.

In northern Iraq, a car bomb in Hawija, a Sunni Arab city, killed two police officers and injured four. A car bomb in the city of Mosul killed five people and injured 20. Gunmen in Kirkuk shot and killed a female lawyer.

South of the capital, near Musayyib, police found the decomposed body of a gunshot victim floating in a river. An Iraqi college student in Basra was killed by British soldiers who opened fire after a roadside bomb attack, witnesses said.

Special correspondents in Baghdad, Basra, Hillah, Kirkuk, Mosul, Najaf and Ramadi contributed to this report.

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