There is some debate as to why Moqtada al-Sadr is taking an unusually low profile during the U.S. "surge."
The senior Iraqi official credits pressure on Sadr from his former patrons in Iran, as well as from Ayatollah Sistani and the Marjaiyah, the Shia clerical leadership in Najaf. He says Iran is withholding military advice and aid to Sadrists as well as other rogue elements, and leaning on them to stop the killings. "Sadr is convinced that there's no real outcome of this struggle, and [death-squad reprisals have] backfired," he says.
Washington takes a less sanguine view of Iran's role in Iraq. U.S. military authorities have publicized a series of weapons seizures in recent days, including material for making the deadly "explosively formed projectiles," or EFPs, bombs allegedly of Iranian origin that can penetrate armored vehicles. But Iranian officials have publicly supported the Baghdad security plan, and have agreed to join a regional conference on Iraq's future with the United States and other nations. "Iran's strategy is to strengthen and support the [Shia-dominated] central government in Iraq," says a senior Iranian intelligence official who asked for anonymity because of his line of work, "when and how it sees appropriate."
The threat of American action certainly had something to do with Sadr's silence, too. Even before Feb. 14, U.S. and Iraqi troops had begun targeting top and middle-level officials in Sadr's organization, arresting several key ones and killing at least two who resisted. Even more critical may have been the intervention of Shia elders. Alarmed at the U.S. crackdown, Sadr had an 11 p.m. meeting with Sistani about a month ago, according to an aide to the grand ayatollah, speaking on condition of anonymity in keeping with practice in the cleric's office. "He asked the sayyid what he should do about the attacks against him, and [Sistani] told him, 'You have two options: bear the consequences, on you and Shias in general, or withdraw into a corner'."
The corner Sadr chose was likely somewhere in Iran. U.S. and Iraqi officials say he left for Iran two weeks ago. "As far as I know, he's still there," says Sami al-Askari, an adviser to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. "He's a secretive man." Both Tehran and Sadr's spokesmen vehemently deny he's hiding in Iran, but it's notable that he has been absent from his usual Friday sermons at the Kufah mosque for three weeks now, and hasn't appeared elsewhere in public.