SPECIAL GROUPS….Muqtada al-Sadr’s cease-fire last year has been widely credited as one of the key drivers of the recent decrease in violence in Iraq (along with the Sunni Awakening and the surge). At the time, observers suggested that one of the reasons Sadr declared the cease-fire was to give himself time to regain authority over rogue elements of the Mahdi Army that had slipped out of his control. These “Special Groups” are the elements that the Iraqi government was supposedly targeting during the recent operation in Basra.

However, most analysts — and certainly Sadr himself — believe that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was, in fact, targeting not just the Special Groups but the entire Mahdi Army. Why? Because he wanted to weaken Sadr’s influence in the runup to elections in October, which Sadr was in a good position to win in the southern provinces surrounding Basra. On that note, Tom Ricks, liveblogging today from the congressional testimony of Gen. David Petraeus and Amb. Ryan Crocker, passes along the following after-action report from the Battle of Basra:

Later in his prepared statement, Crocker makes real news. In the wake of the Basra operation, he reveals, Moqtada al-Sadr’s main militia, Jayash al-Mahdi, seems to have linked back up with the so-called “Special Groups,” or splinter elements of the militia.

I hadn’t seen that before. As Crocker says in his statement, that is “a dangerous development.” But he goes on to say there are still signs of distinction between the groups, such as Sadr’s disavowal of heavy weapons. I dunno — seems like grasping at straws to me.

At any rate, I take back my previous scoffing at Crocker’s diplobabble. He was doing what journalists call “burying the lede.”

In retrospect, this shouldn’t be surprising. The enemy of my enemy is my friend, after all. Sadr might have been genuinely unhappy with the actions and independence of the Special Groups (and vice versa), but once both were attacked, it made sense for them to put aside their differences and get back together. A dangerous development indeed.

UPDATE: In comments, Eric Martin offers a different interpretation of Crocker’s comments:

I always thought that Petraeus/Crocker were going out of their way to be diplomatic to Sadr by depicting the violence as only against “Special Groups.” So I find the switch by Crocker to be the dangerous development more than the claim that JAM has re-linked with the “Special Groups.” The term was used for a purpose, and now that purposes no longer seems operable.

Meaning: Our policy vis-a-vis Sadr has shifted from conciliatory to all out war. So now we can drop the pretense.

Maybe so.

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