AC: "It would amount to diddley squat."
JOHN ROBERTS: There are conflicting reporting tonight about Muqtada al-Sadr, the militant Shiite cleric who leads one of the most powerful militias in Iraq, the Mahdi Army. He is one of the United States' biggest adversaries, and senior White House officials say that al-Sadr has fled to Iran out of fear for his safety because of the coming military build-up.
But a spokesman for al-Sadr and a member of his bloc in parliament says that the cleric remains in Iraq.
CNN's Michael Ware is working this developing story and joins me now from Baghdad.
Michael, any way, now that the sun is coming up, to more clearly ascertain where Muqtada al-Sadr is?
MICHAEL WARE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: John, absolutely not. I mean, the situation remains as it did as 3 a.m. Baghdad time when this story broke. I mean, maybe he's in Iraq. Maybe he's not. Right now, we just don't know.
I mean, this is such a typically Iraqi story. I mean, we've heard from these unnamed aides in the White House. Well, how many times have we seen and learned that what's said in Washington so often bears no relation whatsoever to the facts and the reality on the ground here in Iraq?
Yet again, on the law of averages, at some point Washington does have to get it right.
We spoke to Muqtada's people just a few days ago in Najaf. They said he's here. At 3 a.m., we woke up a member of his party sitting in parliament, one of his spokesmen. He said he's here.
Now, you would expect them to say that if he was, in fact, here. But you would also expect them to say that if he had, in fact, fled.
One thing to bear in mind: this is a regional leader who travels. He could have gone to Iran. He might be in Iran right now. The question there is why that changes the whole dynamic. Nothing is clear, John.
ROBERTS: And Michael, it's not like he hasn't gone to Iran before, correct?
WARE: That's what I'm saying. I mean, this is a man who moves. I mean, he's just done a sort of regional tour to reassure Sunni Arab nations. He's been to Iran that many times. He receives support from Iran. There's a -- you know, religious links to Iran, political links to Iran. If you believe western military intelligence, there's weaponry links to Iran. So there's plenty of reasons that he might be there. We just don't know.
This is a fellow who's a recluse at best. A lot of people want to kill him, so he's very much going to watch his security. Much is uncertain.
ROBERTS: But Michael, just play prognosticator here for a second. If, indeed, he has fled to Iran because he fears for his life, how significant a development would that be?
WARE: Well, I mean, politically, it will certainly send ripples throughout the Iraqi political scene. I mean, Muqtada is a potent political force, as indeed he's become a potent military force. He's not the largest bloc. He's not the largest military faction here. But goodness me, he can make some trouble.
And I mean, we saw that politically, he suddenly became kingmaker when he was able to put the current prime minister into his job.
Now, all of this, directing the political faction and directing his now pretty significant Mahdi militia, he can do from Iran. Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri are able to direct al Qaeda from caves in Waziristan, and al Qaeda barely seems to be skipping a beat.
Al Qaeda in Iraq continues and its leader, Abu Hamza, is on the run.
It will be nothing. The Sadr's political movement and the Jaish al-Mahdi militia, sure they'll feel a squeeze if he has fled to Iran, but they will not cease to be, and Muqtada will continue to reign.
ROBERTS: Well, Michael, I'm sure it's going to be a busy day there in Baghdad trying to figure out exactly where he is. Thanks for joining us. Appreciate it.
JOHN ROBERTS: We're keeping a close eye on a developing story about Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shiite cleric who leads one of the most powerful militias in Iraq, the Mahdi army.
Senior White House officials say he has fled to Iran out of fear for his safety because of the coming troop buildup.
But a spokesman for al-Sadr and a member of his political block in parliament says the cleric remains in Iraq.
CNN's Michael Ware joins me now from Baghdad with the latest.
Michael, you've been up since 3:00 this morning. You've been making phone calls, checking with officials. Any better idea of where Muqtada al-Sadr is this morning?
MICHAEL WARE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely none, John. It's uncertain in every sense as to just where Muqtada al-Sadr is, whether he's in Iraq, whether he's in Iran. At the end of the day, it's now up to Muqtada to reveal himself, to show us his whereabouts, if that in fact suits him.
I mean, what we have are these reports from unnamed White House officials. This is the same White House that thought there was weapons of mass destruction here in Iraq and who, until recently, were telling us things are going well in the war in Iraq.
So what we've heard from the White House and the reality on the ground here in Iraq are often two different things. But eventually at some point, they shall get it right.
Perhaps Muqtada has indeed left the country. We can't say. He travels frequently. And often that is to Iran. There's plenty of reasons for him to go there. So has he left or has he fled?
Now, just until a few days ago, we were talking to his office in Najaf. They said he was in Iraq. 3 a.m. this morning -- it's now 7 a.m. in Baghdad -- we woke up a member of parliament from his political faction, a spokesman. That gentleman said that Muqtada is still here.
Now, you would expect him to say that if he's fled, hoping to give him extra cover. Yet, you'd also expect him to say that if he's still here.
John, at the end of the day, we still don't know.
ROBERTS: Michael, has Muqtada al-Sadr really been a target of the U.S. military lately? Would he have any reason to fear for his life?
WARE: Well, I mean, that's hard to answer. I doubt it, per se. I mean, if the U.S. really wanted to drop a JDAM, a guided munition bomb on top of his building, they could do it. He's not like an al Qaeda leader in Iraq where his whereabouts are such a closely guarded secret.
Nonetheless, a lot of people would like to see Muqtada dead. So it isn't easy to get to see him. It's like a labyrinth passing through all the different houses and back alleys and secret entrances to his complex in Najaf to get anywhere near him.
If he's fled anything, it's most likely not U.S. forces, certainly not the Baghdad security plan, these extra 20,000 reinforcements. Why? Because Muqtada does not live in Baghdad. Muqtada's headquarters is in Najaf. It's from there he directs his political and military factions.
So if he's fleeing anything, be it a flight at all, it's most likely internal divisions, rogue commanders gone bad, or pressure from rival, more powerful Shia factions.
ROBERTS: Now, the suggestion, I guess -- the unspoken inference from American officials here is that he is leaving Iraq because he's afraid for his life, which may have some impact on the operation of the Mahdi militia. Would it have any impact at all, Michael?
WARE: Well, I think it would put things under strain. I mean, clearly, you know, once the leader goes into exile or has to go into hiding, that obviously complicates matters. But at the end of the day, tactically, operationally, it would amount to diddley squat. I mean, we see Osama bin Laden hiding in a cave in Waziristan, and al Qaeda continues its scourge across the world. Here in Iraq, the al Qaeda leader in Iraq is constantly on the run, never sleeping more than a few hours in the same place. That organization continues. Muqtada will be able to direct his militia and political forces from anywhere he wants to.
ROBERTS: Diddley squat, we'll hang on to that one. Thanks, Michael.
JOHN ROBERTS: Well, there's plenty to sort through on this story based on what Jamie McIntyre reported.
Joining me now in Boston is former Presidential adviser David Gergen and standing by again in Baghdad, CNN's Michael Ware.
Michael, this was a really big story coming out of Baghdad with this very secret briefing. A lot of security around it as well, unnamed sources giving you all of this information. Big story, again, on Monday. Then suddenly out comes the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff and says, well, I can't really say it's true, I don't know who these briefers were.
Were you surprised to hear about that?
WARE: Well, am I surprised to hear that there's a disconnect within the military? No. I mean, it's coming from the rolling disaster area that has been the military's public affairs section. I mean, they've been caught flat-footed in this war time and time and time again.
And in terms of the informational propaganda war that's being fought with al Qaeda and the Shia militias, you know, the U.S. military effort is getting stumped. So that there's mixed messages is no surprise.
I was at the briefing. I saw the evidence. Much of it is very, very old hat. So I think this is perhaps just people, you know, in the political ether at the chairman's level not being aware of what's being done actually on the ground level.
I think that there's just a miscommunication here. And listening to the chairman, what he's saying sounds like old hat. It's what was being said here six months ago. I think we're waiting for the chairman's rhetoric to catch up.
ROBERTS: David Gergen, from a political standpoint, this is just downright weird.
DAVID GERGEN, FORMER PRESIDENTIAL ADVISER: Yes. It's weird and botched. You know, to have the -- these were military officials, after all, briefing in Iraq, in Baghdad. They were not some part of the CIA or something, they weren't part of a different agency.
So here you have a lower level officials but in a very, very highly publicized and intentional effort to get a message through all over the world, especially in America, from Baghdad, you would think that that would have been more closely monitored and would have been ordered from the top and people on top would have had some hands-on. Because, after all, that briefing was the lead story in many major American newspapers.
But I have to tell you, John -- and I'd be interested in what Michael thinks about this. My sense is that General Pace and Secretary Gates are also trying to walk this back because they realize how explosive a charge would be that the Iranian government is directly meddling and sending these weapons in. It added to the sense -- that briefing added to the sense that we were headed toward a confrontation and people were looking for ways to spark this, looking for ways to encourage each other to step it up.
And it's very clear that the top people in the U.S. military do not want a confrontation with Iran at this point, even if their civilian masters might want one.
ROBERTS: Well, Michael, what do you think about that? Were these briefers perhaps at the behest of the White House trying to connect some dots here to ratchet up the level, and then you've got the command at the Pentagon saying, whoa, whoa, wait a minute, hang on, let's dial this back before it goes too far, as David was suggesting?
WARE: Well, certainly, what these briefers were saying -- and, remember, we couldn't film this briefing, nor tape it, nor could we reveal the identities of the defense officials who were briefing us. Nonetheless, one of them is going on the record on camera today to repeat most of what was said, to put it all out there publicly.
But, you know, why they're doing it now? The military here says that these particular bombs, these lethal roadside bombs Iran has introduced, there's been such an upsurge, they feel obliged to go public and hopefully put some pressure on.
But of course, this has got to fit within the context of a greater game. This rivalry between Washington and Tehran that's being fought out in the words of one intelligence analyst, in a proxy war here in Iraq.
So this is not happening in a vacuum. And if it needs to be finessed at higher levels, that wouldn't surprise me in the least. David might well indeed be on to something.
ROBERTS: Yes, a one-sided proxy war, though, Michael, because the U.S. is its own proxy there in Baghdad.
David Gergen, why do you think that the administration is talking so much about Iran these days? Is it trying to find a boogeyman for all of the problems in Iraq? Or could this really be leading to another development here in the war?
GERGEN: Well, there are ominous signs that we're stepping up the pressure and that they're stepping up the pressure simultaneously. You know, "Newsweek" has reported this week, John, as you know, that the United States is preparing to send a third carrier into the Persian Gulf region, to follow the second one the president announced only a few weeks ago.
So there is clear indications that both sides are ratcheting it up, that we could stumble into a confrontation, that one side may wish to prod the other one and goad it into some sort of action that will allow them to retaliate.
You know, I have no doubt that the United States government, the military, as well as the White House, feel that Iran is meddling too much and that they -- Iran is a real problem.
And there are a couple of explanations for that. One is Iran would like to have the United States fail in Iraq. The other thing is they'd like to keep -- they'd like to remind the United States, if you have hit us, if you have go after regime change in Iran, we can really cause you deep problems in Iraq. Don't mess with us.
ROBERTS: Yes. And as some people have pointed out to me, David, in the last few days, that the more ships you throw in there to the Gulf, the greater you have increase the chances that some sort of action could happen...
ROBERTS: ... that could trigger a very fast escalation.
David Gergen in Boston and Michael Ware in Baghdad, thanks.