Where is Moqtada al-Sadr?

Followers of radical Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr insist their leader is still in Iraq, disputing claims by US officials that he has fled to Iran to avoid a new offensive against militants. Four Sadr aides said he was still in the country, with some indicating he was in Najaf but had reduced public appearances for “security reasons.” “He is now in Iraq,” Nassar al-Rubaei, head of the Sadrist bloc in Iraq’s parliament. The conflicting reports come after Iraq announced it is closing its borders with Iran and Syria and lengthening a night curfew in Baghdad to try to curb relentless violence in Baghdad.

The ABC News network reported al-Sadr had fled to Iran because of fears he might be targeted by US bombing raids. Two anonymous US officials repeated these assertions to Reuters. In a report on CNN, administration officials said Sadr’s departure may have been prompted by Bush’s plan to add 21,500 troops in Iraq to help the Baghdad crackdown. (Reuters, Feb. 14)

This all smells to us like an effort to paint al-Sadr as an Iranian agent—which would be right in line with the recent spate of dubious anonymous claims that Iran is supplying explosives to the Iraq insurgents. Another signal of this ominous trend is last month’s apparent raid by US forces on the Iranian consulate in Irbil.

In another sign of intrigues against Tehran, the Iranian embassy in Baghdad claimed last week that an Iranian diplomat was illegally arrested. Iraqi sources and official Iranian news reports initially said the diplomat—Jalal Sharafi, second secretary of the embassy—was abducted Feb. 4. One Iraqi government official told CNN that gunmen wearing uniforms similar to those of Iraqi soldiers “intercepted” the diplomat while the diplomat was driving through Masbah, near Baghdad’s Karrada neighborhood. When a local police unit tried to stop them, the abductors fled with Sharafi, leaving his car behind. “It’s unclear whether the armed men were a legitimate Iraqi army unit or gunmen wearing like Iraqi army uniforms,” one official reportedly said.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini condemned the act and linked it to Iraq’s Defense Ministry, saying he holds the US responsible for the release of Sharafi. He said the incident “clearly violates all international conventions.”

“The Islamic Republic of Iran considers it a responsibility of U.S. forces in Iraq to protect members of the diplomatic community, including Iranian diplomats, and will hold them responsible for obtaining the release of the abducted Iranian diplomat,” Hosseini told Iran’s INRA news agency.

US military spokesman Lt. Col. Christopher Garver responded: “This is a government of Iraq issue. No Multi-National Forces were involved.” (CNN, Feb. 7 via Iran Focus)

See our last posts on Iraq and Iran.