WASHINGTON — Radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has left his base in Iraq for Iran, two Bush administration officials said Tuesday.
The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were discussing intelligence activities, cited the new Iraqi security crackdown as a reason for the departure of al-Sadr, who leads one of the largest insurgent militias in Iraq.
Al-Sadr has strong family ties in Iran. It was unknown whether he was on a personal visit or on business there rather than seeking a safe haven, as suggested by the Bush officials.
The leader of the Mahdi Army, al-Sadr has been an outspoken critic of what he calls the American occupation in Iraq and has repeatedly called for withdrawal of U.S. forces.
While and he and his followers have been linked to much of the sectarian violence in Iraq, al-Sadr has in recent months engaged in political negotiations.
The disclosure of al-Sadr's movements comes as Congress debates President Bush's plan to increase the U.S. troop level in Iraq by up to 21,500.
Al-Sadr's militia 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.