IRAQ UPDATE….The New York Times reports that Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army has mostly melted away in Basra. Nobody quite knows why, or whether it’s permanent, or what it means. But there’s also this:

Mr. Sadr issued a statement on Saturday threatening that he would declare “open war until liberation” against the government if the crackdown against his followers did not cease, The Associated Press reported. Mr. Sadr, who is believed to be in Iran, said the government had abused the trust he tried to sow in August by declaring a unilateral truce.

Whether to counter allegations that Iran actively supported the Mahdi Army, or simply because, as many Iraqis have recently speculated, Mr. Sadr’s stock has recently fallen in Iranian eyes, the Iranian ambassador, Hassan Kazemi Qumi, on Saturday expressed his government’s strong support for the Iraqi assault on Basra. Even more strikingly, he called the militias in Basra “outlaws,” the same term that Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki has used to describe them.

…. Mr. Maliki’s abrupt assault on Basra last month has been widely criticized as being poorly planned. But it is believed to have been encouraged by the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq [ISCI], a crucial element of his governing coalition. Many members of the armed wing of the council, called the Badr Organization, joined the government’s security forces early in the Iraq conflict, and have been battling the Sadr-led forces. Mr. Sadr’s political movement is also an important rival of the supreme council.

Because leaders of the council and its armed wing spent years and sometimes decades in exile in Iran during Saddam Hussein’s regime, it was assumed that the silence of the Badr Organization during the Basra offensive indicated that Iran had given at least tacit approval for the move.

Mr. Qumi’s statements now give strong support to that view. They also suggest that Iran, which has historically tried to play Shiite groups against each other in Iraq, has decided to pull back on its support for the group that American officials have continually pointed to as an Iranian-trained troublemaker: Mr. Sadr’s Mahdi Army.

This gibes with other recent evidence (see here) that Iran might finally have decided to stop playing both sides and instead abandon Sadr and throw more of its weight behind ISCI and the current government. The current government is, after all, more pro-Iran than Sadr has ever been, so this is hardly unthinkable.

As always, it’s hard to say what’s really going on here. But it’s possible that the ground is shifting. This might be good news, or it might be in the “be careful what you wish for” category. Stay tuned.

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