Where Is Moqtada al-Sadr?

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Alaa al-Marjani / AP

Cleric Moqtada al-Sadr in December 2006.

Where in the world is Moqtada al-Sadr? He hasn't been seen in public in several weeks, and he has not kept up his usual practice of leading Friday prayers at the Great Mosque in Kufa. Now U.S. officials are claiming the firebrand anti-American cleric fled to Iran two or three weeks ago, along with several commanders of his dreaded Mahdi Army militia. But senior Sadr officials in Baghdad have dismissed those claims as propaganda, and maintain he is still in his Najaf headquarters.

If the American officials are right, it could potentially be a big boost for the military commanders in charge of the new security plan for Baghdad. Sadr's militia is the main vector of sectarian violence in the Iraqi capital, and it is bound to be weakened by the departure of its spiritual leader as well as some top commanders.

But Abdel-Hadi al-Mohamedawi, one of Sadr's spokesmen, told TIME that the cleric hasn’t gone anywhere. “This is just a rumor, planted by the Americans to coincide with their security plan,” he said. “They want to stir up things up, to make trouble.”

In Sadr City, the giant Baghdad slum that is his stronghold, there is confusion about his whereabouts. A group of supporters said they met him in Najaf as recently as last week. “He told us, 'I would rather die here than flee,'” said one resident who was part of that group. But other Sadr City residents say they have heard that Sadr is out of the country, exact location unknown. The main Shi'ite radio station broadcasting from Sadr City has studiously avoided the subject.

Some clerics in Najaf told TIME that Sadr has left quietly, and that his office there is still keeping up the pretense that he is in town. “When you ask for a meeting with Moqtada, they say, 'He's busy,'” said one cleric, who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisals from Sadr's supporters. “After they did that a few times, it became clear that he was no longer in Najaf.”

It is not unusual for Sadr to drop out of sight for long spells, and he has previously traveled to Iran without much warning. If he is there now, it would seem to confirm reports that the Mahdi Army is seeking to avoid confrontation with American and Iraqi troops. In recent days, militia commanders have said they had received orders from Sadr's office in Najaf to stand down and lie low.