Maliki: On second thought, let's lay off the Mahdi Army for awhile

He vowed a few days ago to crack heads in Baghdad. Today he’s un-vowing. Austin Bay would say it’s all part of the process, forever oscillating between posturing, negotiation, and spurts of open conflict. The media says … otherwise. From the AP link:

A statement by al-Maliki’s office, broadcast on government television, did not mention the Mahdi Army by name or give a timeframe for the freeze. It said the move was designed to give a “chance to those who repented and want to lay down their arms.”…

“It is not possible to look for only a military solution. There must be a political solution and that’s why the prime minister issued today’s statement,” a top al-Maliki adviser, Sadiq al-Rikabi, told The Associated Press.

“We must have calm. Many politicians advised al-Maliki against confrontation, warning him that clashes benefited other parties,” al-Rikabi said without elaborating…

A member of al-Sadr’s 30-member bloc in parliament, Hassan al-Rubaie, told the AP that the decision to freeze arrests was made during talks Thursday between Sadrist representatives and al-Maliki aides.

Al-Rubaie said the freeze applied even in cases where an arrest warrant had been issued. He said negotiations were under way on other Sadrist demands, including the release of al-Sadr’s followers detained without charge, reinstating soldiers and police who deserted during last week’s fighting and the lifting of the siege of Sadr City and another Shiite neighborhood.

“Other parties” in Iraq-speak almost always means Iran, but the Iranians were the ones who allegedly leaned on Sadr to call a ceasefire in the first place. So why’d Maliki back off? Ryan Crocker told reporters yesterday that he was “not coming back [to Baghdad from Basra] in any kind of triumphal spirit,” which does indeed suggest a cave-in. But did he bow to pressure from the Sadrists — or from the U.S.?

The senior U.S. military officer expressed relief that Maliki had taken a pause today after making his previous bellicose comments.

“Iraqis need to figure out a way to deal with it [the militia problem], which means going in more slowly,” he said…

Echoing comments by other Western officials, the U.S. military official expressed frustration over Maliki’s apparently contradictory statements. “You can believe what he’s saying now. You just don’t know how long it’ll last,” he said, faulting the prime minister’s advisors.

Petraeus is probably worried about a fiasco if the IA tries another hamfisted operation in Baghdad so soon before he has to testify before Congress, so maybe the heat on Maliki is coming from our side. By one Iraqi official’s estimate, more than a thousand IA/IP members deserted during the Basra assault; if they send Shiite troops into Sadr City, god only knows what will happen. Which means the U.S. troops who are out in the field in that neighborhood, waiting for the Iraqis to stop drinking tea back at the base and come out to relieve them, may be waiting a good while longer.