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Sadr has left Iraq and now in Iran: U.S. officials

Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr speaks to his supporters next to a poster of his father Mohammed Bager al-Sadr at the Hanana mosque during the Muslim festival of Eid al-Fitr, in Najaf, Iraq, October 24, 2006. The U.S. military believes Sadr, one of Iraq's most powerful figures, has left the country and is now in Iran, two senior American officials said on Tuesday. REUTERS/AliAbu Shish

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. military believes radical Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, one of Iraq’s most powerful figures, has left the country and is now in Iran, two senior American officials said on Tuesday.

Sadr’s departure was first reported by the ABC News network which said he had fled to Iran because of fears that he might be targeted by U.S. bombs and worries over his safety because of a fracturing within his organization.

The U.S. officials spoke to Reuters about the report on condition of anonymity.

Washington has identified the Mehdi Army -- a militia loyal to Sadr -- as the biggest threat to Iraqi security and has urged Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to disarm it. But Maliki’s government depends heavily on Sadr’s political movement for support.

In recent months, U.S. forces have killed or detained hundreds of people from Sadr’s movement.

The report of Sadr’s departure comes just days after U.S. military officials in Baghdad showed journalists fragments of what they said were Iranian-manufactured weapons and asserted that people at the “highest levels” of Tehran’s government were involved in arming Iraqi militants.

In a report on CNN, administration officials said Sadr’s departure may have been prompted by President George W. Bush’s plan to add 21,500 troops in Iraq.

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