- Title: UAE/ FILE: U.S. official says Sadr's Iraqi militia off-balance, leaderless
- Date: 9th March 2007
- Summary: (BN12) KERBALA, IRAQ (FILE - APRIL 23, 2004) (REUTERS) VARIOUS OF BURNING TRUCK MASKED MILITIAMEN IN BLACK CARRYING RIFLES
- Embargoed: 24th March 2007 12:00
- Topics: International Relations
- Reuters ID: LVA4L7GXTSVKGAS1JMQ263ZIJ35I
- Story Text: Rebel Iraqi cleric Moqtada al-Sadr is believed to have gone into hiding, a U.S. army spokesman said on Thursday (March 8).
Al-Sadr, has used his position as a cleric to preach sermons inciting Iraqis to raise arms against U.S. and allied troops. In 2004 al-Sadr gave a sermon in Najaf saying he could unleash suicide bombers if U.S. forces attacked the holy Shi'ite city, and called on the whole nation to unite to expel Iraq's occupiers.
"Neither are we few in number nor do we lack weapons, and believers, men and women, have come to me and asked permission to become martyrs and to execute martyrdom operations. But I keep telling them to wait," said al-Sadr.
Sadr went on to say that if attacks continued in Najaf he would call on these believers to fight back.
But a U.S. official said on Thursday that al-Sadr had disappeared leaving his Mehdi army in disarray.
"As probably just about everyone knows, he has gone into hiding, whether he is in Iran or somewhere else, that remains to be seen, but the fact of the matter is, the leadership is now out of position there, and it is very important to keep them off balance. We will remain committed to doing those types of things. If you can stop the leadership you can usually have a strong affect on the organisation itself," Captain Frank Pascual, U.S. Central Command's spokesman for U.S. operations in Iraq told reporters.
Conflicting reports on Sadr's whereabouts circulated in Iraq last month when his followers denied he had left. Dubai-based diplomatic sources who deal extensively with Iraq said they had information that Sadr was in Iran.
At least 700 fighters of Moqtada al-Sadr's Mehdi Army have been arrested in Iraq in the past two months with the Shi'ite militia thrown off balance since its fiery leader was believed to have gone into hiding.
''And that is more than 700 of Jeish El-Mehdis militia (Mehdi Army) have been arrested, they've been taken off the street so there is some additional safety that's been advanced by that," said Pascual.
More than 1,000 U.S. and Iraqi troops launched a clampdown last week on Sadr's Baghdad stronghold of Sadr City, to hunt down the Shi'ite militiamen of his Mehdi Army.
Some Shi'ite officials outside his movement say the militia wants to avoid a battle to protect the cleric's political gains.
Sadr's movement holds a quarter of the parliament seats in Iraqi's Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's ruling Shi'ite Alliance, whose members also have close ties with Iran.
"We have seen that influence, we have seen weapons coming in, there is irrefutable evidence and it is up to Iraq to inform their neighbour Iran to stop that, and in fact we have made that point as well to the government of Iran that that is not being helpful,'' said Pascual.
U.S. officials have accused Iran of interfering in Iraq and sending weapons to militiamen and Pascual said it was important to curb the influence of the Islamic Republic in its neighbour.
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