Officials linked to Muqtada al-Sadr deny the radical Shiite cleric fled the country

Officials linked to Muqtada al-Sadr denied Wednesday that the radical Shiite cleric had fled to Iran ahead of a security crackdown in Baghdad.

An Iraqi government official said al-Sadr was in the Shiite holy city of Najaf Tuesday night, when he received delegates from several government departments. The official, who is familiar with one of those meetings, spoke on condition of anonymity because he has no authority to disclose information on his department's activities.

The denials came after a U.S. official said al-Sadr left his Baghdad stronghold some weeks ago and is believed to be in Tehran, where he has family. The official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss U.S. monitoring activities, said fractures in al-Sadr's political and militia operations may be part of the reason for his departure. The move is not believed to be permanent, the official said.

A close aide who meets regularly with al-Sadr said the cleric was not in Tehran, claiming that the reports were part of a deliberate policy by his office to spread disinformation about his whereabouts.

An official in al-Sadr's main office in Najaf also said the cleric had decided not to appear publicly during the current month of Muharam, one of four holy months in the Islamic calendar.

"The leader Muqtada al-Sadr is inside Iraq now," he said.

Both officials also declined to be identified because they weren't authorized to disclose the information, reports AP.

The black turbaned cleric rarely appears in public or announces his movements and his Mahdi Army militia has mostly been keeping a low profile ahead of the security sweep.

Al-Sadr was reportedly going to make a speech on Monday in Najaf to mark the anniversary of the bombing of an important Shiite shrine north of Baghdad, but he did not do so. The anniversary fell on Monday, according to the Islamic lunar calendar.

While the Mahdi Army has its stronghold in the Shiite district of Sadr City in Baghdad, al-Sadr has his headquarters in Najaf, 160 kilometers (100 miles) south of Baghdad.

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