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Last Updated: Friday, 7 March 2008, 19:19 GMT
Iraq cleric Sadr explains absence
Moqtada Sadr gives a sermon in Kufa (25 May 2007)
Moqtada Sadr has not been seen in public since giving a sermon in May
The Iraqi Shia cleric Moqtada Sadr has explained why he has not been seen in public for more than nine months - and acknowledged splits in his movement.

He said he missed his followers "too much" but that every "commander needed to be away for a while to worship".

He has reportedly resumed his religious studies to gain the title of ayatollah.

The statement comes two weeks after the cleric renewed a unilateral ceasefire his powerful Mehdi Army militia has been observing for the past six months.

The ceasefire has been widely credited with reducing sectarian tensions and contributing to the overall drop in violence in recent months.

'Pursue studies'

In a rare statement issued by his office in the holy city of Najaf, Moqtada Sadr acknowledged that his absence "could be a reason for depressing" his followers.

"I swear that I live with you and among you. I am a part of you. I will not change his unless death separates us," he said.

He said the main reason for him going away - US military commanders believe he is in neighbouring Iran - was the advice of his father, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq Sadr, who was assassinated in 1999 reportedly by Iraqi agents.

Many persons who are close to me have split for materialistic reasons or because they wanted to be independent and this was one of the reasons behind my absence
Moqtada Sadr

"My late father personally recommended me to pay more attention to learning and studying. The brothers in Sadrist offices are continuing to serve the society," he added.

In December, a senior aide, Salah al-Ubaidi, said Moqtada Sadr had not been seen in public since 25 May because he resumed his religious studies at a Shia seminary in Najaf.

Correspondents say gaining the honorific title of ayatollah would enhance his religious credentials, as well as providing him with enhanced authority over spiritual matters in his country and the ability to issue fatwas (legal rulings).

He would also be able to more effectively disassociate himself from powerful senior Shia clerics such as Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who have co-operated with the Iraqi authorities and US-led coalition since the 2003 invasion, they add.

Moqtada Sadr also acknowledged in his statement the divisions in the movement he leads and to distance himself from his followers who had developed their own agendas.

Many of his followers had split from him "for materialistic reasons or because they wanted to be independent", he said.

"This was one of the reasons behind my absence... yet I still have many people loyal and faithful to me and I advise them to direct society toward education and teaching," he added.

Since he declared a ceasefire in August, the US military has continued to target what it calls rogue Mehdi Army elements, who have been ignoring his orders.

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