U.S. Says Powerful Iraqi Cleric Is Living in Iran

By MARK MAZZETTI

New York Times

February 13, 2007

WASHINGTON, Feb. 13 — The powerful Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr has left Iraq and has been living in Iran for the past several weeks, senior Bush administration officials said Tuesday.

With fresh American forces arriving in Baghdad as part of the White House plan to stabilize the capital, officials in Washington suggested that Mr. Sadr might have fled Iraq to avoid being captured or killed during the crackdown.

But officials also said that Mr. Sadr, who has family in Iran, had gone to Tehran in the past and that it was unclear why he had chosen to leave Iraq at this time. Mr. Sadr’s departure from Iraq was first reported Tuesday night by ABC News.

Neutralizing the power of Mr. Sadr, whose Mahdi Army has sporadically battled American forces for the past four years, has been a particular concern for American officials as they try to rein in powerful Shiite militias in Baghdad.

With the new American offensive in Baghdad still in its early days, American commanders have focused operations in the eastern part of the city, a predominantly Shiite area that has long been the Mahdi Army’s power base.

If Mr. Sadr had indeed fled, his absence would create a vacuum that could allow even more radical elements of the Shiite group to take power.

Last year’s election of Nuri Kamal al-Maliki as prime minister enhanced Mr. Sadr’s political stature inside Iraq. Mr. Maliki was elected with the backing of a political bloc led by Mr. Sadr.

American and Iraqi officials have said that recent intelligence points to signs of fracturing within the Mahdi Army, and that radical splinter groups who are not under Mr. Sadr’s control could be carrying out commando-style raids and assassinations.

Officials have suggested that these splinter groups could be receiving orders from officials in Iran, but have not offered direct evidence to back up their claims.

An aide to Mr. Sadr, reached by telephone on Tuesday night, denied that Mr. Sadr had left Iraq and said that the cleric was planning a televised address in the next several says.

Last week, during a raid in Diyala Province, Iraqi forces killed an aide of Mr. Sadr’s who American military officials said had been leading “rogue” elements of the Mahdi Army and fomenting violence against Iraqi civilians and police.

Three days later, Iraqi and American troops arrested the second-highest-ranking official in the Health Ministry, who they said was running a Mahdi Army splinter group and funneling millions of dollars to rogue Shiite militants.

The raids were carried out after Mr. Maliki dropped his protection of Mr. Sadr.

American officials said Tuesday that Mr. Sadr may have seen these operations coming and fled the country to avoid his own arrest.

But military officials in Iraq have also been wary of moving directly against Mr. Sadr, fearing that capturing or killing the militant cleric would further stoke the sectarian violence inside Iraq and turn more Shiites against the Maliki government.

In 2004, American forces arrested several of Mr. Sadr’s top aides and shut down a newspaper allied with the Mahdi Army, setting off bloody clashes in eastern Baghdad and the Shiite holy city of Najaf.

The news of Mr. Sadr’s departure from Iraq came amid an escalating war of words between the Bush administration and top Iranian officials. In recent days, White House and military officials have accused the Iranian government of supplying Shiite militias with the materials to make deadly roadside bombs.

Iranian officials have denied the charges.

Marc Santora contributed reporting from Baghdad.