The Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al Sadr returned to Iran on Friday after spending a couple of weeks testing the political waters back home in Iraq after a long, self-imposed exile, aides said.

Mr al Sadr, whose speeches rallied millions of poor Iraqi Shi'ites against US forces after the 2003 invasion and whose militia played a major role in the sectarian carnage that gripped Iraq, slipped out of the country without fanfare.

"Yes, definitely Sayyed Moqtada al Sadr went back to Iran," a source inside his office said, on condition of anonymity.

It was not immediately clear if the young cleric had returned to Iran temporarily or if he intended to stay a while, perhaps to resume religious studies in Qom.One senior former member of Mr al Sadr's Mahdi Army militia said his return to Iran was a "surprise" while a member of his political bloc said he was expected to come back soon.

Mr al Sadr's return to Iraq on January 5 rattled the political establishment, more than three years after he fled the country facing an old arrest warrant brought against him by US administrators.

Mr al Sadr's movement has become a powerful political force in Iraq after winning 39 parliamentary seats in last year's election and playing a pivotal role in securing Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki's reappointment last month.



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