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Mahdi army leaders have move to Iran: report

The militia loyal to the radical Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, have moved to Iran to avoid being targeted in the new security sweep in Baghdad.

india Updated: Feb 15, 2007 16:30 IST

Senior commanders of the Mahdi army, the militia loyal to the radical Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, have moved to Iran to avoid being targeted in the new security sweep in Baghdad, a high-level Iraqi official has said.

"Over the last three weeks, they [Iran] have taken away from Baghdad the first and second-tier military leaders of the Mahdi army," the official said.

The aim of the Iranians was to "prevent the dismantling of the infrastructure of the Shia militias" in the Iraqi capital - one of the chief aims of the US-backed security drive.

"The strategy is to lie low until the storm passes, and then let them return and fill the vacuum," the unnamed official told The Guardian.

Tehran authorities were "playing a waiting game" until the commanders could return to Baghdad and resume their activities.

"All indications are that Moqtada is in Iran, but that is not really the point," he added.

The Mahdi army has launched two failed uprisings against US troops and has been linked to death squads preying on Sunnis.

The new security operation in Baghdad will be the third attempt by US forces and their Iraqi allies to end violence that soared following the bombing of the sacred Shia shrine in Samarra a year ago.

"They [the Iranians] are calculating that the security operation will continue for a certain period of time, and that it will do serious damage to the Sunni jihadists and the insurgents," the official said.

In the holy Iraqi city of Najaf, a senior figure in the Mahdi army, Karim al-Moussawi said most of the militia leaders had gone to Iran, but on their own initiative.

"They were neither ordered to go by Sayid Muqtada nor invited to enter by the Iranian authorities," he was quoted as saying by the paper.

"Simply they were seeking sanctuary as individuals from expected targeting by the US occupying forces during the security drive in Baghdad." A number of commanders had also gone to Najaf and the southern provinces, he added.

"The US forces should be targeting the real terrorists," he said.

Reports of the vanishing Mahdi fighters came amid mounting speculation over the whereabouts of Sadr.

The chief US military spokesman in Baghdad said the anti-western cleric had fled to Iran.

"He is in Iran and he left last month," said Major General William Caldwell.

US forces were tracking him "very closely", he said.

The assertion was hotly contested by senior members of the Sadr movement, who said their leader had been in Najaf meeting local officials, the newspaper reported.

One pro-Sadr satellite channel showed footage of Sadr that it said was taken in Najaf three days ago.

"This is just a rumour sent around to confuse people. Sayid Moqtada is available and has not left Iraq. Why would he need to do so?

The movement has declared its support for the security crackdown and its full cooperation in defeating the terrorists," Falah al-Akaily, a pro-Sadr MP, said.