Al-Sadr sighting reported in Iraq

Lawmaker's claim, U.S. account clash

February 15, 2007|By Borzou Daragahi and Saif Hameed | Borzou Daragahi and Saif Hameed,Los Angeles Times

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- An Iraqi lawmaker with close ties to radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr said yesterday that he saw the Shiite Muslim leader four days ago in Iraq, continuing a war of words with U.S. officials about al-Sadr's whereabouts.

U.S. officials told reporters this week that the anti-American cleric had left Iraq weeks ago, possibly to avoid a security crackdown beginning in Baghdad. His Mahdi Army militia has clashed at times with U.S.-led forces.

But lawmaker Fattah al-Sheik said in an interview that he met with the cleric in the holy city of Najaf, where al-Sadr lives.

"The media are trying to say he escaped to Iran," said al-Sheik, a Shiite and al-Sadr loyalist. "It is totally false. I was talking with the office manager, and he told me that his eminence was laughing about the news."

Iraqi officials often spend time in neighboring Jordan, Syria and Iran, as well as in Western countries, to escape the deep misery and violence gripping their country. But the suggestion that al-Sadr might have fled ahead of the crackdown could undermine his leadership role among the young Shiite men who make up his supporters.

The reports of his departure were met with angry denials by al-Sadr's supporters, including the head of his parliamentary faction in the capital and his deputies in the shrine city of Najaf.

"The Americans want to shake the foundations that are connected with his eminence," said Abdul-Razzaq al-Nedawi, an al-Sadr loyalist in Najaf. "A leader present in the middle of a battle gives his soldiers momentum. If he escapes, morale will break down."

U.S. Army Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV, spokesman for coalition forces in Iraq, yesterday repeated U.S. assertions that al-Sadr had left his home in Najaf for Iraq in recent weeks. He declined to elaborate on why al-Sadr might have left Iraq.

"We obviously track Muqtada al-Sadr very closely," he said. "We will acknowledge that he is not in the country, and all indications are that he is in Iran and left sometime last month."

Al-Sadr's supporters admitted he has not appeared publicly in weeks but say he wanted to keep a low profile during the holy period marking the martyrdom of the Imam Hussein, a Shiite saint whose commemoration ended two weeks ago.

U.S. and Iraqi officials say they believe al-Sadr's loosely organized Mahdi Army has evolved into a collection of armed gangs terrorizing Iraqis. A videotape emerged yesterday showing U.S. Army Reserve Spc. Ahmed Qusai Taei, who reportedly was captured in October, pleading for his release from a group claiming ties to the cleric's militia.

Such videotapes often emerge during protracted ransom negotiations between kidnapping rings and families of victims.

Meanwhile, U.S. warplanes scoured the skies above the capital yesterday as a Baghdad security plan called Operation Law and Order began. The military reported that 14 suspects were detained and four weapons caches were discovered in the city.

The ambitious plan aims to place U.S. soldiers into neighborhood security stations in an attempt to halt the spread of sectarian violence and displacement. The plan, kicked off Tuesday evening, will take months to bear fruit, Caldwell told reporters.

"It would be a mistake if expectations were so high that the plan wasn't given time to succeed," he said. "We'll see results in the June-July time frame."

Violence continued around the country. Four U.S. soldiers died of injuries sustained when explosions went off near their vehicle in Diyala province, the military reported yesterday. Another U.S. soldier died in Baghdad yesterday of wounds suffered from small-arms fire the day before, and a sixth soldier was killed Tuesday in a noncombat incident in northern Iraq, the military said.

Authorities in the capital picked up the bodies of five Iraqis shot to death. A car bomb near a Baghdad children's hospital killed four people and injured 10.

Another car bomb explosion killed one person and injured seven. A roadside bomb attack killed an Iraqi police officer and injured three officers. Mortar struck a village north of the capital, killing one person and injuring 16. Gunmen shot dead two Oil Ministry employees in southern Baghdad.

Outside the capital, a suicide car bomb explosion in Ramadi, west of the capital, killed at least seven people and injured 22, a police official said. Another car bomb in Hawija, a Sunni city in northern Iraq, killed two police officers and injured four officers. A car bomb in the northern city of Mosul killed five people and injured 20.

Borzou Daragahi and Saif Hameed write for the Los Angeles Times.

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