BAGHDAD, (Reuters) – A U.S. military general said on Wednesday that radical Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr has left Iraq and is in Iran, accused by Washington of inflaming sectarian tensions in its neighbour.
The cleric’s aides denied earlier reports Sadr had fled to avoid a crackdown on militants aimed at halting suicide bomb attacks and death squad killings in Baghdad.
Asked about the conflicting reports over the whereabouts of Sadr, an anti-American cleric whose Mehdi Army militia has been blamed for widespread sectarian killings, U.S. military spokesman Major-General William Caldwell said: “All indications are in fact that he is in Iran and he left last month.” He said U.S. forces were “tracking Moqtada al-Sadr very closely”.
Earlier four of Sadr’s aides rejected suggestions by unidentified U.S. officials in Washington that the cleric had left to escape the crackdown, saying he was still in Iraq and keeping a low profile in the holy Shi’ite city of Najaf.
The influential firebrand has led his Mehdi Army militia in two uprisings against U.S. forces in 2004. He has been keeping a low profile as Iraqi and U.S. forces step up a Baghdad security operation regarded as the last chance to avert a slide into all-out civil war between majority Shi’ites and Sunni Arabs.
Washington says the Mehdi Army is the biggest threat to Iraq’s security and has urged Shi’ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to disarm it. Maliki relies on Sadr for political support.
U.S. and Iraqi forces have captured or killed hundreds of members of Sadr’s Mehdi Army. Sadr has publicly rejected violence against fellow Iraqis.
Caldwell seemed to distance the military from comments made by a U.S. defence official this week implicating the “highest levels” of Tehran’s government in supplying weapons to Iraqi militants that have killed at least 170 U.S. soldiers in Iraq.
On Tuesday the head of the U.S. joint chiefs of staff, Marine General Peter Pace, said Iranian weapons found in Iraq did not mean the Iranian government was involved.
Caldwell told reporters in Baghdad there was “no intent to make any inferences or assertions at this point”.
Asked repeatedly about the apparently contradictory remarks of Pace and the U.S. defence official, Caldwell took pains to explain that the aim of the analyst’s briefing was to lay out evidence that Iran was arming Iraqi militants, not to implicate the Iranian government.
Iran is locked in a standoff with the U.S. over its nuclear programme. Washington fears Iran wants to develop atomic weapons which Tehran denies.
In the first acknowledgement by the military that insurgents could be using hi-tech weapons to attack U.S. helicopters, Caldwell said a transport helicopter that crashed in Iraq last week, killing all seven aboard, was brought down by a “sophisticated piece of weaponry”.
The U.S. military had said helicopters had been hit only by machinegun fire. Seven helicopters have been shot down since Jan. 20. Caldwell stressed he was not making “any inferences” about the source of the weaponry.