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Moqtada al-Sadr 'flees to Iran'

London Telegraph | February 14, 2007  
Laura Clout

The fundamentalist Shia cleric seen as the biggest threat to unity in Iraq has fled to Iran, according to American officials.

Moqtada al-Sadr reportedly left his home in anticipation of a renewed offensive in Baghdad by American forces. He is said to be staying in Teheran, where he has relatives.

The cleric's aides in Baghdad today denied he has left the country, claiming that the US reports stem from deliberate misinformation put out by Sadr's people to hide his true whereabouts.

Sadr's militia, the Mahdi army, is blamed for numerous sectarian killings as well as large scale attacks on US troops. It will be a major target of the reinforced American presence in the capital, deployed in an attempt to quell the violence ahead of an eventual withdrawal.

Sadr is thought to have left his Baghdad stronghold some weeks ago. His alleged departure, which the Americans say may also have been motivated by divisions within his Shia movement, is not expected to be permanent.

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It is not clear what control he will maintain over his militia in his absence. There are fears that a vacuum of power could allow even more radical elements of his group to seize control.

Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister, has been reluctant to crack down on Sadr's militia despite exhortations from the US, because the cleric's allies in parliament tacitly support the administration .

But the Americans recently persuaded Mr al-Maliki to quietly drop his protection of Sadr, and recent months have seen a wave of raids on Mahdi army strongholds in the east of the capital.

Two key members of Sadr's political and military organisation were shot dead last week, and at least five other leading figures in the organisation have been killed or captured in raids the last two months.

Sadr sees himself as a scion of one of Iraq's most venerable religious families. His father was a revered ayatollah, who became the voice of the Shia majority during the years of repression under Saddam Hussein's Sunni-dominated regime. The ayatollah paid the price when he was murdered in the holy city of Najaf in 1999.

Sadr has no religious standing but inherited his father's popular following. He is the de facto ruler of Sadr City, a Baghdad slum of perhaps two million.

Gen Ricardo Sanchez, the former commander of coalition forces in Iraq, promised to "capture or kill" Sadr. The Americans tried to arrest him in Najaf in 2005, sparking another outbreak of fighting.

How to deal with Sadr had presented US forces with one of the greatest dilemmas of their new operation.

 

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