TEHRAN, Iran, (AP) – Iran’s Foreign Ministry denied Sunday that radical Iraqi Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr was in Iran, calling statements by U.S. and Iraqi officials saying he had traveled to Iran “psychological warfare.”
“No, he is not in Iran,” Mohammad Ali Hoseini, spokesman for the Ministry, told journalists during a regular press briefing in Iran’s first comment on the issue. “The report is baseless and a kind of psychological warfare against Iran by the U.S. to put more pressure on Iran.”
An adviser to Iraq’s prime minister said last Thursday that al-Sadr, a close ally of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, was in Iran, but denied that the cleric had fled there due to fear of arrest during a security crackdown by coalition forces. A member of al-Sadr’s bloc in parliament said the cleric had left Iraq three weeks earlier.
The chief U.S. military spokesman in Iraq, Maj. Gen. William Caldwell, said Thursday that al-Sadr “is not in the country” and that “all indications are, in fact, that he is in Iran.” Caldwell said U.S. authorities have been tracking al-Sadr’s movements for months.
Al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia in Iraq 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 Shiite parties allied with the Americans.
U.S. and Iraqi forces in Baghdad have increased pressure on backers of the anti-American cleric and other militants in a major security operation that began last week.
Al-Sadr often drops out of sight for weeks at a time and takes elaborate security precautions including using decoy convoys. He is believed to sleep in a different location every night.
The radical cleric emerged from relative obscurity to become a national figure in the weeks after Saddam Hussein was ousted in 2003. His anti-American rhetoric and emphasis on his Arab ancestry have earned him the support of young and underprivileged Shiites across Iraq.