Big news: U.S. arrests leader of breakaway Mahdi Army faction for Karbala raid

The bombshells keep bursting. Read this if you haven’t yet before you go any further, though; it’s important and you’ll need it as background.

Now then. Bonanza:

“Over the past several days, coalition forces in Basra and Hilla captured Qais Khazali, his brother Laith Khazali and several other members of the Khazali network,” the U.S. military said in a statement Thursday.

The military said the network is “directly connected” to the killings in Karbala, a Shiite city south of Baghdad…

Khazali has not been seen in public since late 2004, the AP reported.

U.S. officials have been tight-lipped about the arrests. The military has not disclosed evidence linking the Khazali network to the Karbala attack, but one official called it “significant.”

I’d say so — according to the Blotter, the evidence includes the ID cards of the U.S. troops kidnapped and murdered in the raid.

The Karbala raid is suspected of having been an Iranian operation, possibly conducted in retaliation for the seizure of five of their “diplomats” by the U.S. in Irbil a few weeks prior. Supposedly the five were members of the Quds Force, the elite wing of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard who are in Iraq training and supplying Shiite militias. The raid was unusual in its professionalism: the attackers spoke English, wore U.S. uniforms, and drove American-style SUVs, all of which was thought to be above Sadr’s pay grade but certainly not Iran’s. All of which was known before — except for the possible involvement of Khalazi, who was identified yesterday by the AP as the leader of the Iranian-trained “rogue” splinter group of Mahdi Army fighters. If the AP story’s true, his role in the Karbala raid is further evidence of Iran’s guilt; conversely, if Iran’s role in the Karbala raid is assumed, then the AP story about Khalazi and the rogue JAM is more credible. Mutually reinforcing, neat and tidy. Perhaps too much so, but more on that in a bit; we have another bombshell to blow first. From the Blotter:

The coalition also found evidence linking the men to Iran and to an arms smuggling operation that included the high impact Explosively Formed Projectiles, or EFPs, according to U.S. officials.

EFPs are those super-destructive IEDs identified last month by the Bush administration as one of the biggest killers of U.S. troops in Iraq. Bush claims they’re being manufactured in Iran and supplied to the militias by the Quds Force, probably with but possibly without the knowledge of Iran’s leaders. Now the Blotter’s putting them in Khazali’s hands, which suggests that this guy and his network are a linchpin of Shiite jihad in Iraq, which in turn would mean this is a very, very big pinch. Is thatt plausible, though? Well, the AP article yesterday quoted two Mahdi Army commanders saying that Iran’s been recruiting from their ranks since 2005. The CNN article linked above notes that Khalazi’s absence has been conspicuous since 2004. So yeah, the timetable fits — he might have been across the border learning Hezbollah-type tactics for the past two years and then came home to do Iran’s dirty work.

It all fits so nicely and importantly that it seems too good to be true … which is why it probably is. Not the part about him being involved with Iran, but this whole story about him being the leader of some “breakaway” Mahdi Army faction. The military said today that the arrests were made over the past three days; coincidentally, the big AP scoop about his role as leader of the “rogue” JAM appeared just last night without mentioning anything about an arrest. That’s an amazing coincidence to have happen to a guy who’s been out of the news otherwise for three years, don’t you think? I’m thinking he’s not the leader of any “rogue” faction at all. He’s probably a fully credentialed Mahdi Army commander in good standing, but when word got out about the first arrests on Monday night, the leadership realized the jig was up and that they’d soon have to explain why one of their top guys had been caught with EFPs and dead Americans’ identification. So they went to the AP with this “rogue faction” cover story, which gives the rest of them plausible deniability and lets the more conciliatory members continue to negotiate with the U.S. Like I said last night, it’s the Roggio theory in reverse.

Either that or it’s all a big lie, we planted the evidence on Khalazi, he has nothing to do with Karbala, etc etc etc.

I don’t think this is a coincidence either:

U.S. forces in Iraq have freed a top aide to rebel Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr after holding him for more than two years…

U.S.-Iraq coalition leaders said in a statement that they believed Shibani “could play a potentially important role in helping to moderate extremism and foster reconciliation in Iraq,” the BBC reported.

Shibani, a leader in Sadr’s Mehdi Army, has been held since his capture two years ago in the mainly Shiite town of Najaf. The U.S. military described him at that time as a major security threat.

They pinched Khalazi so they had to make a goodwill gesture and help Sadr save face by letting another guy go. That’s Shibani. Presumably the Iranians have no influence over him (yet) since he’s been in jail for so long.

One last tidbit, again from the Blotter. It’s not just Iran that’s under the gun today:

U.S. military also disclosed today that the leaders and members of the “Rusafa” car bomb network responsible for “some of the horrific bombings in eastern Baghdad in recent weeks” had also been arrested.

And it was also revealed that a “Saddam Fedayeen leader involved in setting up training camps in Syria for Iraqi and foreign fighters” was also arrested in Mosul. Officials declined to name the individual or describe the location of the camps in Syria…

Today’s arrest was the first official indication … that terrorist training camps were operating in Syria.

A lot of damning information is suddenly coming out. I wonder what’s up.