The violence is down 55% since the summer, although the U.S. is naturally circumspect about who should get credit for the drop. The Iraqi government has to live next door to these cretins after we’re gone so they’re being a bit more generous. Assuming what they say is true, and the evidence does point that way, it raises a fascinating question: With a new Democratic Congress in place and anti-war sentiment burning incandescently before the surge began, why didn’t Iran put the militias in motion and ratchet the violence way up in an all-out push to force Bush into a humiliating withdrawal under fire? Why give him a breather and let the hawks regain some momentum?

Does anyone believe this is the explanation?

[Government spokesman Ali al-]Dabbagh said that the turning point came when Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki of Iraq visited Iran in August and met with that country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in the Shiite shrine city of Mashad. Mr. Maliki told the Iranian leader that “Iran had to choose whether to support the government or any other party, and Iraq will decide according to which they choose,” Mr. Dabbagh said. The Iranians promised to help and have done so, he said.

Supposedly it was then that Tehran had a word with Sadr, whereupon Sadr told his men to take a six-month vacation. What leverage does the Iraqi government have over Iran, though? Iran might very well have more influence over the southern part of the country than Baghdad has. And given the obvious lingering Shiite mistrust of their Sunni countrymen, Maliki doesn’t have much of a “choice” in who to align himself with. Does he think Khamenei’s worried that he’ll go running to Saudi Arabia if Iran continues meddling inside Iraq?

One weak possibility is that Iran needs allies at the UN right now to check the U.S. and Europeans as they try to get a new round of nuclear sanctions passed. A terrorist offensive in Iraq while that’s going on makes it harder for Russia and China to defend the innocence of their intentions. But only marginally harder: the nuke kabuki’s been going on for years and the EFPs were flowing freely across the border until recently. Another possibility is that Iran’s spooked by Bush’s saber-rattling, but as we’ve discussed many times, a U.S. attack might do the regime as much good as harm in turning the public to its side.

I don’t have any answers. Maybe we bought them off somehow behind the scenes. Roggio notes near the end of this post that the U.S. recently released nine Iranian prisoners, including two Quds Force members captured at Irbil; if a deal has been struck, that’s probably a small part of it. He’s also got the scoop about the latest demands from the scum who kidnapped those British hostages back in May. Long story short, they want to exchange them for a man who’ll be familiar to longtime HA readers as one of the biggest trophies yet taken by U.S. troops in Iraq. There’s not a chance in hell that it will happen. Unless, of course, Condi takes over the negotiations.

There’s also a bit of breaking news tonight that Iran might be ready to outsource its nuke program to Switzerland as part of a Muslim nuclear consortium. Don’t you believe it.

More (Bryan): I may have a partial answer to this (in addition to bnelson’s comment below), based on interviews I’ve done and email conversations I’ve had with US commanders in Iraq or recently rotated out of Iraq. One of the primary motivations for Iraqis to join the Shiite militias was, believe it or not, to fight the Sunni insurgents and the foreign al Qaeda forces. Fighting against the US was secondary, if not tertiary, to fighting the various Sunni factions and re-establishing basic order (and running mafia-like crime syndicates). Remember, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s stated goal was to foment a civil war in Iraq by targeting Shias with his Sunni terrorists, and that’s just what he nearly did in 2005-2006. Along with the Sunni dead-enders, the Shiites also saw US forces as occupiers, so instead of working with us they turned to their fellow Shias in Iran for aid and received it in the form of training and materiel (EFPs, etc). But the Sunnis who hosted al Qaeda found those foreign forces to be too brutal against everyone including the Iraqi Sunnis, thus the “awakenings” that we’re hearing so much about as the Sunnis have turned to us for help. Who else was available? They couldn’t go to the Shiite militias whom they’d helped attack and who would never trust them, they certainly couldn’t turn to Iran or the Saudis with us having such a huge presence and the Saudis only capable of sending a few hundred volunteer martyrs and low levels of cash. We were the strongest force on the scene and we weren’t influenced by sectarianism, so they turned to us. As the Sunnis have turned against al Qaeda, they have not only helped us destroy al Qaeda but they have also stopped helping al Qaeda attack Iraqi Shiites. With that change, the primary motivation for Iraqi Shiites to belong to militias has slowly gone away. Iraqis of all stripes tend to be Iraqi nationalists, and even among the Shia there is lingering hatred of Iran from the Iran-Iraq war. On this side of the war, we tend to forget that. Moqtada al-Sadr actually lost some prestige among his own militia and the Iraqi Shia generally when he fled to Iran, because that revealed that he may be more Iranian than Iraqi (or at least that either the Iranians own him or that he’s not quite the Iraqi patriot that the Shia militiamen thought he was). So taken all together, the Shia militias are fragmenting as the rationale for the existence weakens. There are still dangerous and radical elements among them, no doubt about that, just as there are dangerous and radical elements among the Sunni insurgents who are now our allies. But the dynamics of the war have changed over the past few months, making it less profitable and less easy for the Iranians to meddle in Iraq. And in addition to all of that, Iran might be a bit more cooperative now because with the al Qaeda forces in Iraq all but destroyed and the Shia and Sunni fighters becoming less problematic for us, the Iranians might see the massive US presence in Iraq as poised to take on Iran from a secure base in Iraq. Whether that’s true or not, it’s useful for us that the Iranians may see our forces that way.