By Gerry J. Gilmore
American Forces Press Service
April 18, 2007 – The intentions of radical Islamic cleric Muqtada al-Sadr largely remain cloudy amid the shifting sands of power politics in the new Iraq, the commander of U.S. Central Command testified at a Congressional hearing today. "This is a guy that's pretty difficult to understand for us," Navy Adm. William J. Fallon told House Armed Services Committee members. "He holds, clearly, a large amount of influence within segments of the Iraqi population, but of late he has been absent."
Sadr is a Baghdad-based Shiite religious leader who commands the Mahdi Army militia, which has fought U.S. and Iraqi troops on many occasions.
The fiery cleric advocates an immediate withdrawal of U.S. military forces from Iraq. But, he has mostly disappeared from public view since the mid-February start of the surge of U.S. and Iraqi forces into Baghdad and parts of western Iraq, Fallon noted.
"By all accounts he appears to be in Iran," Fallon commented on reports of Sadr's whereabouts. Yet, the cleric's "particularly nasty" militia members, he said, remain a nuisance to U.S. and coalition troops in the Baghdad area.
News reports attribute the recent resignation of six Sadr loyalists in the Iraqi Cabinet as a stunt arranged by the cleric to protest the lack of a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said yesterday during a visit to Amman, Jordan, that the cabinet resignations may prove to be advantageous to the Iraqi government. The secretary acknowledged that Sadr's motives are unclear at this point and remain, for now, "a mystery."
Fallon said not one of Sadr's many public proclamations issued since the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime have been helpful to the coalition or the new Iraqi government.
Yet, Sadr's militia hasn't tried to stop the movement of U.S. and Iraqi security forces into Baghdad as the surge continues, the admiral noted.
However, the cleric's followers "are attacking our forces sporadically," Fallon said. There is currently no indication of a Mahdi Army-staged mass uprising against U.S. troops, he added.
Fallon told the House committee that most Iraqi citizens are weary of sectarian strife and bloodshed and are likely not interested in Sadr's overtures for continued violence. It's therefore important, he said, that Iraqi leaders publicly denounce the extremists at every opportunity.
The admiral took over as CENTCOM's commander March 16. Since then, he told the committee, he's traveled to Iraq, Afghanistan and other Middle Eastern countries that come under his command's purview.
After discussions with key U.S. and Iraqi military and civilian leaders and sifting through reams of data, Fallon said he sees significant signs of a reduction in the number of murders and other kinds of sectarian violence in Iraq.
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