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The mystery over the whereabouts of Muqtada al-Sadr deepened with the US military spokesman saying the Shi'ite militia leader had fled to Iran, his supporters insisting he was still in Iraq - and no sign of the anti-American cleric himself.
On Wednesday, the chief US military spokesman, Maj. Gen. William Caldwell, said only that al-Sadr "is not in the country" and that "all indications are in fact that he is in Iran."
A senior US official in Washington said Tuesday that al-Sadr had left Iraq for Iran, ahead of the security crackdown in Baghdad. That raised concern over al-Sadr's ability to direct his militia, which could fragment into uncontrollable gangs in the absence of its leader.
Caldwell said US authorities have been tracking al-Sadr's movements for months. He would not speculate on whether al-Sadr fled to escape the crackdown.
But the mercurial al-Sadr, who is not believed to have visited Baghdad in more than two years, often drops out of public view for weeks or months at a time. He failed to turn up for a planned speech Monday in the southern city of Najaf, where he lives, and has not been seen in public since Jan. 3.
Iraqi lawmakers and officials loyal to al-Sadr categorically denied that he had left the country but refused to say where he was, citing his personal safety. One aide, speaking on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to release information, said al-Sadr sleeps in a different location every night to guard against attack.
When al-Sadr preaches at a mosque in Kufa, a town near Najaf, his security officers send out decoy convoys to confuse would-be attackers. His main fear is said to be an attack by rival Shi'ites, but he is also worried about the Americans and assassins hired by Sunni religious extremists who consider Shi'ites to be heretics.
A spokesman for al-Sadr's political movement said the US claim was part of an American "psychological warfare" campaign to prod the cleric into a public appearance so they could arrest him.
"Muqtada al-Sadr's leadership is a brave one, and he will not leave the battlefield," said the spokesman, Saleh al-Ukaili.
Another official in al-Sadr's organization, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of security concerns, speculated al-Sadr may have planted the Iran story to confuse the Americans about his whereabouts.
In Najaf, al-Sadr's staff said the cleric had decided not to receive visitors during the Islamic month of Muharram, which ends this week, and the following month, Safar - both among the four holiest in the Islamic calendar.
Al-Sadr's militia is widely believed to receive Iranian money and weapons, but his relations with Tehran are not as close as are those of some Kurdish and Shi'ite parties allied with the Americans.
Aides to the cleric say he had secretly visited Iran at least once since 2003 in addition to a public visit last year.
US authorities have vowed to force al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militiamen off the streets and have pressured Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki into telling al-Sadr that he could no longer protect his forces from the Americans, according to Iraqi officials.
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