Is Maliki finally "Standing Up?"

We've all heard the spin from last week's inconclusive fight between Moqtada al-Sadr's Mehdi Army and Iraqi troops in Basra. Most media outlets have judged the offensive by the government a failure and that only by the good graces of Iran was Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki able to pull out and save face.

Indeed, expect that theme to be hammered home tomorrow when General Petreaus and Ambassador Crocker testify before the Senate to give an update on progress in Iraq since September.

But something is happening in Iraq that probably won't make it to the Committee room; Maliki is finally cofronting the problem of militias in Iraq. And in an even bigger surprise, his government seems more united on this issue (and his crackdown in Basra) than on any other issue since he took power.

And lo and behold, Moqtada al-Sadr is making noises like he does indeed wish to disband his militia - if ordered to do so by the nominally pro-government Ayatollah al-Sistani.

First, the Sunnis, Kurds and a major Shia political leader are apparently grateful to Maliki for trying to crack down on Sadr in Basra:

The head of the Kurdish self-ruled region, Massoud Barzani, has offered Kurdish troops to help fight anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia. More significantly, Sunni Arab Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi signed off on a statement by President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, and the Shiite vice president, Adil Abdul-Mahdi, expressing support for the crackdown in the oil-rich southern city of Basra.

Al-Hashemi is one of al-Maliki's most bitter critics and the two have been locked in an acrimonious public quarrel for a year. Al-Hashemi has accused the prime minister of sectarian favoritism and al-Maliki has complained that the Sunni vice president is blocking key legislation.

On Thursday, however, al-Maliki paid al-Hashemi a rare visit. A statement by al-Hashemi's office said the vice president told al-Maliki that "we can bite the bullet and put aside our political differences."
Next, Maliki ordered Sadr to disarm his militia or get frozen out of Iraqi politics. And in a surprising response, al-Sadr is saying yes:
It was the first time Sadr has offered to dissolve the Mehdi Army militia, whose black-masked fighters have been principle actors throughout Iraq's five-year-old war and the main foes of U.S. and Iraqi forces in widespread battles over recent weeks.

The news came on the day Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who launched a crackdown on the militia late last month, ordered the Mehdi Army to disband or Sadr's followers would be excluded from Iraqi political life. Senior Sadr aide Hassan Zargani said Sadr would seek rulings from Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's most senior Shi'ite cleric, as well as senior Shi'ite clergy based in Iran, on whether to dissolve the Mehdi Army, and would obey their orders.

"If they order the Mehdi Army to disband, Moqtada al-Sadr and the Sadr movement will obey the orders of the religious leaders," Zargani told Reuters from neighboring Iran, where U.S. officials say Sadr has spent most of the past year.
All this good news presents something of a dilemma to our media; how can we spin this to make it appear the prime minister is the one surrendering?

No problem:
Sadr's decision will gain him respect among followers as a leader who is ready to sacrifice for his supporters' safety," said Iraqi political science lecturer Hazem al-Nuaimi. But it is hard to imagine the gunmen disappearing from Iraqi neighborhoods any time soon, said Joost Hiltermann, Iraq expert at the International Crisis Group think tank.

"In a vacuum like the current one, militias thrive because they are necessary. They protect Sadr's people against sectarian attacks by Sunni insurgents and against the Shi'ite middle class which doesn't want Sadrists to get a share of power," he said.
Just for fun, let's put a little spin of our own on this news, shall we? Just suppose that Maliki and the Iraqi Army actually did a little better in Basra than the press let on, that he damaged the Mehdi Militia and forced al-Sadr to ask for a truce not because he's such a nice fellow but because his militia was being hurt.

Now suppose that the other factions in Maliki's government recognized that fact and feel comfortable supporting Maliki because his move in Basra is popular with their constituents. This leads to some confidence by Maliki who then issues his order for the Mehdi to disarm.

And al-Sadr? The Mook wants political power and knows that Maliki can keep he and his supporters off the ballot if he doesn't comply. So once again, he looks for a face saving way out. Last week it was getting his Iranian friends to pull his chestnuts out of the fire. And this week, it is asking a man who despises him - al-Sistani - to order him to give up his weapons.

This, by the way, is a first class humiliation for Sadr and don't let anyone try to spin you differently. Sadr and Sistani hate each other and are rivals for influence in the Shia community. Sadr actually went to the holy city of Qom, Iran to study further so that he can become an ayatollah and challenge Sistani for the religious leadership of the country.

For him to have been forced to agree to allow his mortal enemy to decide the fate of his militia is a blow to his pride that will not be lost on his followers.

If Sistani agrees, it will be the beginning of the end for the Mehdi Army. No doubt there will be dissenters who will refuse to give up. But it will make the government's job that much easier. They can kill anyone who doesn't comply.

This could be a hugely significant period for the Iraqi government. Or, as in past instances where hopes have been raised, they will fall back into sectarian strife. But the performance of the Prime Minister has been remarkably steady over the past couple of weeks which is a good sign no matter what happens to the Mehdi.
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