Questions and accusations continued to swirl about the whereabouts of the militant Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr on Thursday, and American and Iraqi forces deepened their security push in Baghdad.
An Interior Ministry official said that the Iraqi police had wounded Abu Ayyub al-Masri, the leader of the terrorist group al-Qaida in Mesopotamia, and killed his top aide in a gun battle near Balad, in Diyala Province. But there were no further details, including whether al-Masri had been captured or how it was known he had been wounded, and the U.S. military declined to comment on the report.
Two Shiite leaders stepped forward on Thursday to confirm American reports this week that al-Sadr had gone to Iran.
But the two, a senior official in al-Sadr's organization who spoke on condition of anonymity, and Sami al-Askari, a Parliament member from a different Shiite party, took exception to suggestions that he had fled because of a crackdown on militias and had permanently moved to Iran. They said that the cleric often visited the country and that it was unclear why he had left or when he would come back; the Sadr official said he could return to Iraq on Friday.
In a sign of how volatile the topic has become, several of the cleric's aides continued their vehement denials that he had left at all, and accused the Americans of a propaganda campaign to paint him as a coward. "This is an American lie that aims to get information about the whereabouts of Sadr in any way possible," said Abdul Razzaq al-Nadawi, a top al-Sadr aide, in an interview on Al-Arabiya. "Through this they can accomplish two things: The first is that either Sadr shows up on TV and announces that he is here, and in this case they can make sure that he is in Najaf, Iraq. If he doesn't show up they will also have achieved something, by depicting Sadr as a coward who fled to Iran fearing for his life."
For his part, al-Askari said he did not understand why either the Americans or al-Sadr's group were making such a fuss. The cleric has frequently traveled to Iran, he said, and rarely appears in public even when he is in Iraq. "I don't know why the Sadrists are denying that Muqtada al-Sadr has left," he said. "Maybe because of the provocative statements by the Americans."
The American military has not divulged its motivation for highlighting al-Sadr's purported absence. Senior White House officials said they believed al-Sadr left several weeks ago and that it was unclear what led him to go. If he actually did leave, it is now unclear whether he could come back: The Iraqi government said Thursday that it had closed its borders with Syria and Iran as part of the new security plan.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite who owes much of his political rise to early support from al-Sadr, has struggled under recent pressure to show progress in reining in the militias. U.S. officials insist that the Mahdi Army and other Shiite militias have been taking a bigger role in attacking American troops, sometimes with help from Iranian materials and expertise. Meanwhile, al-Sadr loyalists portray themselves as nationalists, legitimate partners of the Shiite-led government, and the only capable defenders of Shiite families from attack by Sunni Arab groups.