BAGHDAD, Iraq – With a series of new checkpoints and coordinated raids across the city, Baghdad’s eagerly awaited security plan finally kicked off Wednesday as a new mystery consumed the attention of Iraqis: Where is Muqtada al-Sadr?
A day after U.S. officials in Washington anonymously told news media that the anti-American cleric who heads the country’s biggest militia has fled to Iran, al-Sadr officials and spokesmen lined up to deny the claim, insisting that al-Sadr is still in Iraq and would soon make a public appearance to prove the U.S. wrong.
Al-Sadr, who told a reporter in January that he feared for his life, did not make his whereabouts known.
“This news is false,” said Abdul Razzaq al-Nidawi, a senior al-Sadr spokesman reached by telephone in the province of Diwaniya. “Sayyed Muqtada al-Sadr is still in Najaf, and he did not and will not leave the city.”
At a news briefing in Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone, military spokesman Maj. Gen. William Caldwell confirmed that the U.S. has information that al-Sadr is in Iran, but he refused to speculate as to why he was there or when he left his hometown of Najaf, the holy Shiite city.
As the security effort finally got under way Wednesday, more than a month after it was promised, U.S. forces launched a series of 21 coordinated raids across the city, including Sunni districts of western Baghdad and Shiite ones on the eastern side of the river.
Elsewhere in Baghdad, Iraqi soldiers and police set up new checkpoints, snarling traffic and forcing people to walk across bridges jammed with vehicles.
The U.S. military said 14 suspects were detained and four weapons caches discovered during the day’s operation.
Outside the capital, fighting continued. The military said four U.S. soldiers were killed Wednesday in an explosion in Diyala province, among six new U.S. deaths announced.
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