BAGHDAD, Iraq – Where's Mookie?
That's the question being asked in Iraq amid conflicting accounts of the whereabouts of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
The chief U.S. military spokesman in Iraq insisted Wednesday that the bitterly anti-American al-Sadr, nicknamed "Mookie" by U.S. troops in Iraq, has left the country and is believed to be in Iran.
But the radical sheik's supporters say it just isn't so.
Maj. Gen. William Caldwell on Wednesday confirmed a statement by a U.S. official who said al-Sadr left the country some weeks ago and is believed to be in Tehran, where he has family. The official 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.
Lawmakers and officials linked to al-Sadr quickly denied that he had left the country, with one saying the cleric had met with government officials late Tuesday in the Shiite holy city of Najaf.
Caldwell declined to comment on the reasons al-Sadr had left the country or give more details.
"We will acknowledge that he is not in the country and all indications are in fact that he is in Iran," Caldwell told reporters in Baghdad.
An Iraqi government official, however, said al-Sadr was in Najaf as recently as 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.
Lawmaker Nassar al-Rubaie, the head of Sadrist bloc in parliament, also insisted al-Sadr had not left the country.
"The news is not accurate because Muqtada al-Sadr is still in Iraq and he did not visit any country," al-Rubaie told The Associated Press.
The U.S. official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss U.S. monitoring activities, said al-Sadr had left his Baghdad stronghold some weeks ago and 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.
The reference to Baghdad was unclear since al-Sadr's headquarters are in Najaf, 100 miles south of Baghdad, although his Mahdi Army militia has its stronghold in the Shiite district of Sadr City in Baghdad.
Al-Sadr is a key political backer of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, but the Iraqi leader has promised not to let that interfere with efforts to crack down on militia violence along with Sunni insurgents as part of the current crackdown.
Two key members of al-Sadr's political and military organization were gunned down last week, the latest of as many as seven key figures in the al-Sadr organization killed or captured in the past two months.
A close aide who meets regularly with al-Sadr said the cleric was not in Tehran, said the report probably stemmed from a campaign by al-Sadr's people to put out false information about his movements amid fears he will be detained by U.S.-led forces. The cleric also is sleeping in different places each night, the aide said.
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.
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.
A spokesman for the Sadrist bloc said the assertion that al-Sadr had fled was part of a "psychological war" by U.S.-led forces to try to prod the cleric into the open.
"The leadership of Muqtada al-Sadr is a brave one and will not leave the field," Saleh al-Ukaili said.
Al-Sadr's militia is blamed for much of the sectarian violence and is widely seen as the main threat to Iraq's unity and high on the list of targets for the Baghdad security operation.
A ragtag but highly motivated militia that fought U.S. forces twice in 2004, the Mahdi Army is blamed for much of the sectarian strife shaking Iraq since a Shiite shrine was bombed by Sunni militants a year ago. U.S. officials have for months pressed Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to move against the militia, but he has so far done little to comply, largely because he does not want to lose al-Sadr's support.
Al-Sadr, who is in his mid-30s, rose from obscurity after the ouster of Saddam Hussein to lead a movement of young, underprivileged Iraqis united by opposition to U.S. military presence as well as hunger for Shiite domination.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.