If there was any doubt that he’s Iran’s fair-haired boy — and there shouldn’t be, since he’s been holed up there for the better part of a year and admits that he has “formal links” with Hezbollah — this ought to dispatch with it:

Iraqi lawmakers traveled to the Iranian holy city of Qom over the weekend to win the support of the commander of Iran’s Qods brigades in persuading Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr to order his followers to stop military operations, members of the Iraqi parliament said…

There the Iraqi lawmakers held talks with Brig. Gen. Qassem Suleimani, commander of the Qods (Jerusalem) brigades of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps and signed an agreement with Sadr, which formed the basis of his statement Sunday, members of parliament said.

Ali al Adeeb, a member of Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki’s Dawa party, and Hadi al Ameri, the head of the Badr Organization, the military wing of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, had two aims, lawmakers said: to ask Sadr to stand down his militia and to ask Iranian officials to stop supplying weapons to Shiite militants in Iraq…

The Qom discussions may or may not bring an end to the fighting but they almost certainly have undermined Maliki – who made repeated declarations that there would be no negotiations and that he would treat as outlaws those who did not turn in their weapons for cash. The blow to his own credibility was worsened by the fact that members of his own party had helped organize the Iran initiative…

Maliki — who had said he would not leave Basra until the Shiite militias were defeated — was expected to remain in Basra for a few more days, he said.

How close was the Iraqi Army to crushing the JAM in the city? It’s unclear. A source tells CNN that the Iranians “pressured” Sadr into the agreement, which, combined with the fact that the delegation sought him out and not vice versa, adds a dollop of nuance to the image of him crawling to Maliki to beg him to stop the assault. “Everything we heard indicates the Sadrists had control of more ground in Basra at the end of the fighting than they did at the beginning,” said a Sunni politician who helped mediate with the Mahdi Army in Baghdad to USA Today. McClatchy concedes that while the Iraqi Army did capture one neighborhood in eastern Basra, they couldn’t make headway in the hives of Hayaniyah or al Qibla. But then there’s this:

Sources in Basra tell TIME that there has been a large-scale retreat of the Mahdi Army in the oil-rich Iraqi port city because of low morale and because ammunition is low due to the closure of the Iranian border. TIME has not yet been able to confirm those reports with U.S., Mahi Army or Iraqi government authorities.

They’ve presumably melted back into the population now, weapons intact and ready for use. What’s Maliki’s next move? One of his spokesmen told CNN that operations should be over by the end of the week, suggesting he’s ready to walk away and leave the status quo as is, but then reversed himself and said they’ll go on for as long as needed. We’ll see. In the meantime, two questions. One: Why’d Iran tell Sadr to back off? I wondered a few days ago if they weren’t stirring the pot now to complicate Petraeus’s testimony in front of Congress, but if that were true they’d want to keep up the fighting for as long as they can. My guess is that the answer lies in that Time quote: Their ratlines into Iraq had been closed off and they were worried about not being able to resupply the militias, especially with the U.S. and Brits about to be dragged into the fighting. So they did the prudent thing — a truce, a la Hezbollah and Israel two years ago, which makes it tough for Maliki to ignore without incurring public wrath and promises a return to normalcy so that they can start shipping in weapons again.

And two: Did Maliki’s government sell him out? I can’t find any evidence that he asked the delegation to meet with Sadr (although a spokesman did welcome the agreement yesterday) so this may be a case of his own allies panicking and going behind his back, leaving him in an impossible position. If he presses on, he’s a tyrant who’s picking on poor, peaceful Muqtada Sadr. If he doesn’t press on, he loses face. Since no Iraq post is complete without a half-assed cloak-and-dagger theory, consider the possibility that SCIRI pressed him into going after Sadr with precisely this possibility in mind. The likely successor to Maliki is Iraqi VP Adel Abdul Mahdi; guess which party he belongs to. In other words, even a failure in Basra is potentially a SCIRI success. Er, unless of course the grassroots Shia flock to Sadr in outrage and give him a huge victory in the provincial elections. Which is what makes a half-assed cloak-and-dagger theory half-assed, my friends.

To atone, enjoy this video taken somewhere in Iraq but probably fairly representative of what Basra’s been like the past week.