Supporters of Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr said Wednesday that he was still in Iraq, denying a report that he fled to Iran ahead of a security crackdown targeting his militia.
A senior U.S. official said Tuesday al-Sadr fled Iraq ahead of the security crackdown and the arrival of 21,500 American soldiers. According to the report, Al-Sadr left his Baghdad stronghold some weeks ago, the official said, and is believed to be in Tehran, where he has family.
An Iraqi government official said al-Sadr was in the Shiite holy city of Najaf Tuesday night, when he received delegates from several government departments. Lawmaker Nassar al-Rubaie, the head of Sadrist bloc in parliament, insisted al-Sadr had not left the country. "The news is not accurate because Muqtada al-Sadr is still in Iraq and he did not visit any country," al-Rubaie told The Associated Press.
It should be noted that U.S. officials have for months pressed Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to move against al Sadr's militia, but he has so far done little to comply, largely because he does not want to lose al-Sadr's support.
According to the AP, the report on al-Sadr's departure coincides with an announcement that Iraq will close its borders with Iran and Syria for 72 hours as part of its drive to end the violence.