Citing defense sources, various media outlets are reporting that radical Iraqi Shia leader Moqtada al Sadar has fled to neighboring Iran, taking key members of his Mahdi Army with him.
Senior military leaders told ABC News that al Sadr left Baghdad two or three weeks ago, and is now living in Tehran, where he has family. Senior leaders in his militia reportedly accompanied him to Iran. Their departure coincided with the start of a U.S. troop build-up in Iraq, and promises by the country's Prime Minister that al Sadr (and other militia leaders) would no longer be protected by the government.
With American troops preparing to enter--and remain--in al Sadr's Baghdad stronghold, the cleric was apparently concerned that he might become a target. One U.S. official told ABC's Martha Raddatz "He is scared he will get a JDAM (satellite-guided bomb) dropped on his house."
The sudden departure of Al Sadr and his top commanders leaves the Mahdi Army with a potential leadership vaccum in the coming months, as more U.S. troops enter Iraq. Al Sadr's minions still have the resources to carry out their daily ration of bombings and assassinations, but their ability to formulate long-term strategy may be impaired by Al Sadr's absence. Moreover, members of his militia will hardly be inspired by their leader's sudden decampment, and they may be less inclined to do Mookie's bidding while he's in exile.
Almost everyone agrees that Al Sadr's stay in Iran will be limited. Over the past three years, Al Sadr has become one of Tehran's most effective proxies in Iraq, and the Iranian government does not want his organization to wither. In fact, there's some speculation that Mookie's sudden move to Tehran may actually be some sort of "recall" by his Iranian sponsors, designed to get him out of harm's way (on a temporary basis), and facilitate discussions on future terrorist strategies in Iraq.
In the interim, it might be helpful if the Iraqi government did something that might dissuade Sadr from returning to the country, such as resurrecting the murder charges against him that were "postponed" back in 2004. But I'm guessing that Prime Minister al-Malaki doesn't have the political capital--or willpower--to pull off that sort of move. There is some consolation, however, in the knowledge that Sadrist influence in the Iraqi government may wane a bit with their leader out of the country, and give al-Malaki a bit more room to maneuver. Psychologically, Al Sadr's sudden departure may offer an inadvertent boost to the troop surge and on-going security operations in Baghdad. Taking up residence in Iran, Al Sadr seems to be expressing more confidence in the surge--and its prospects for success--than the Democrats in the House and Senate.