Reuters is in “shock.” Did hardball work?

Iraqi cleric Moqtada al-Sadr offered on Monday to disband his militia if the highest Shi’ite religious authority demand it, a shock announcement at a time when the group is the focus of an upsurge in fighting.

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…

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.

A spokesman for Sadr insists that Maliki’s threat to ban the Sadrists from politics is unconstitutional, but if they’re talking about disbanding they’re obviously taking it seriously enough. Question one: If, per Ed’s post this morning, “[t]he first step will be adding language to a draft election bill banning parties that operate militias from fielding candidates in provincial balloting this fall,” where does that leave SCIRI, which fields its own considerable militia (the Badr Brigades) and whose interests in ruling the southern part of the country the Basra operation was allegedly intended to protect? Is the Badr militia disbanding too, or have they already formally “disbanded” and remade themselves as more of a shadow force, a model the JAM will doubtless follow?

Question two: Rational, power-hungry people simply don’t hand over their 60,000-man personal army unless they’ve been decisively crushed, and whatever may have happened in Basra, the JAM wasn’t decisively crushed. There’s some sort of strategic angle to this announcement, but what? My first hunch was that Sadr’s trying to have the militia’s legitimacy blessed by the Shiite religious authorities, on the assumption that Maliki wouldn’t dare move against him again if the movement is sanctified. It shouldn’t be hard to get that blessing from the Iranian clerics, but what if Sistani comes down the other way? From what I understand, many Iraqi Shia are suspicious of Sadr because of Iran’s influence over him; their loyalties aren’t a simple matter of sect, but of patriotism too. If Iraq’s chief religious authority ends up at loggerheads with Iran’s, then Sadr looks like a stooge and ends up in a bad spot with the people he’s trying to win over. Which makes me think he wouldn’t dare bring Sistani into it unless he had reason to believe he’d rule his way.

Question three, the flip side of the last one: Rational, power-hungry criminals don’t simply lay down their arms because some fat idiot who doesn’t live in the country anymore tells them to. The JAM is one part army, one part mafia operation, one part street gang. They’re not going to give up racketeering, extortion, and the impressive weapons Iran’s supplying them with simply to make Muqtada Sadr happy. The true religious devotees among them might, but what percentage could that realistically be? If you believe that Sadr is a wholly owned puppet of Iran and that the JAM on the ground are already well integrated with Revolutionary Guard commanders, then there may be little downside from Iran’s standpoint in having Sadr officially “disband” them: It keeps the Sadrists viable within the government and the militia will crawl on anyway in its informal guise as loosely confederated neighborhood “units” (which is how the U.S. treats them in targeting the “rogue” groups while leaving the “legitimate” ones alone).

Thoughts on what’s really going on here? No one gets this lucky.

Update: One of the commenters notes that Sadr is studying to be an ayatollah as we speak and may have some sort of glorious Khomeini-esque return to Iraq in mind within the next few years. If it’s personal power he’s after, then ingratiating himself with the religious authorities by deferring to them may be more useful than keeping his army, which will exist in some fashion anyway via Iranian management and can always be reconstituted later. The question is simply what’s the fastest way to the top at this point, religious legitimacy or brute military strength?