Iraqi militia leader flees area

BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) – The mystery over the whereabouts of Muqtada al-Sadr deepened Wednesday with the U.S. military spokesman saying the Shiite militia leader had fled to Iran, his supporters insisting he was still in Iraq _ and no sign of the anti-American cleric himself.

A senior U.S. official said Tuesday in Washington that al-Sadr 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.

On Wednesday, the chief U.S. 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.”

Caldwell said U.S. authorities have been tracking al-Sadr’s movements for months. He would not speculate 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.

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