Thursday, February 15, 2007
Reports of the vanishing Mahdi fighters came amid mounting speculation over the whereabouts of Mr 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. One pro-Sadr satellite channel showed footage of Mr Sadr that it said was taken in Najaf three days ago. Falah al-Akaily, a pro-Sadr MP, said: "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."
A statement by the Sadr movement's office in Sadr City accused the US of playing games: "This is a lie put out as part of a psychological and media campaign by the US occupation to hurt the reputation of the brave national leader."
The Mahdi army, also known as Jaish al-Mahdi, was born in the vacuum left by the fall of Saddam Hussein. With no one in charge, Shia clerics organised religious students to distribute food and essentials from the mosques of Sadr City in Baghdad. One of the most popular of the clerics was Moqtada al-Sadr - young, radical and anti-American. The groups soon took on "security duties", and in June 2003 Mr Sadr brought them together as the Mahdi army. The militia rose to prominence in April 2004 when they led the first major Shia confrontation against US forces.
The army has continued to gain in strength since the handover to the Iraqi interim government, feeding on dissatisfaction among Shias who initially welcomed the fall of Saddam. Mr Sadr, despite his anti-Americanism, is a political ally of the Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki. His fighters, dressed in black, are armed with assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, anti-air missiles and other light weapons, and have been known to use IEDs (improvised explosive devices). The size of the force is thought to be between 6,000 and 10,000.
Posted by Jesus Reyes at 3:02 PM