Tons of meaty stuff from Iraqslogger tonight. Right off, scratch the reports of the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq being in custody. An Iraqi paper called al-Mada claims Omar al-Baghdadi actually led the jihadi raid on the prison in Mosul that freed 147 prisoners. Why the ostensible leader of the Sunni jihad would be out in front of an attack with guns blazing is beyond me; it smells like propaganda, but Slogger doesn’t give any details about the sectarian biases of al-Mada. I’d guess Sunni given the glorious daring of the scenario.

In Baghdad, the good news is that some of the men in black have crawled out of their holes and given our boys some bullseyes.

The bad news is these aren’t really the droids we’re looking for.

Former elements of the Mahdi Army have begun to dissociate themselves from the leadership of Muqtada al-Sadr and take up arms to try to defend their Baghdad neighborhoods from attacks, Slogger sources report.

This development occurs in the context of continuing violent attacks against Iraqi Shi’a civilians on the part of militant Sunni groups, attacks which have not been prevented by the security plan, nor by the Mahdi Army…

It should be noted that the Mahdi Army is not itself a tightly organized force. Some members are close and loyal Sadr associates, some are extremists with a record of killing Sunni civilians indiscriminately, and some are groups of Iraqi Shi’a who took up arms to protect their neighborhoods from outside attackers. The latter groups were often able to obtain support from the local Sadr offices, sometimes after they had elected to use the Mahdi Army name. According to Slogger sources, it is this latter type of member who is denouncing Sadr and returning to armed activity.

I.e., we’ll be facing off against exactly the types of Sadrists who’d otherwise be most amenable to laying down their guns. Bill Roggio thinks the hype about the Mahdi Army being divided and having “rogue members” is nonsense cooked up by U.S. sources to give our guys cover to disappear their guys off the streets and then blame it on Sadr. If you believe Slogger, that’s not quite accurate. Either way, the Sunnis keep on car-bombing them, killing 160 Shiite pilgrims in the last two days.

Finally, 15 MPs from the southern Shiite Fadhila party have left Maliki’s ruling coalition and hooked up with Iyad Allawi’s secular Shiite party to form what they’re calling the Iraqi National Front. A Kurdish party and the Sunni Tawaafuq party are also part of the coalition; the Sunni party is led by Adnan al-Dulaimi, a guy who may very well have been involved in Jill Carroll’s kidnapping. The new Front is still well off the number of seats they’d need to install Allawi as PM (they’ve got 100 and need 139), but the transfer of those 15 seats is still very big because it makes Sadr’s MPs that much more important to Maliki to retain power. How can he move against the Mahdi Army now if he’s worried about the Sadrists walking out? Or is that Allawi’s plan — to force the government to fall and then make a play for the 39 seats he needs to take over?

Update: I can’t leave it on that note. Here. Take heart, take heart.

Update: Top of the page at NYTimes.com: “Buildup in Iraq Needed Into ’08, U.S. General Says.” Gen. Odierno’s recommendation was supposed to be confidential but somebody leaked it, presumably to influence next week’s House debate over the diluted “slow bleed” provisions and new timetable for withdrawal in the Iraq spending bill. I’m not sure which way this news will cut, though: it might steel the Blue Dogs, who are currently divided, to support a longer commitment and oppose Murtha, or it might galvanize the doves by making the time horizon for the mission look limitless, in which case why not bring ’em home now?

Long story short, the surge will start to decline in August and reach pre-surge levels in December unless we keep on surging, which will require still more Guard mobilizations and sending troops over before they’ve had the standard full year to train. Meanwhile, if we don’t keep surging, the Mahdi Army that’s been waiting us out might decide to stop waiting. And the best part?

Given the time needed to adjust training schedules and prepare units, decisions may need to be made before there is clear evidence about whether the new strategy is working.

Acutally, Murtha’s plan might benefit most from this. The details are vague but it sounds like he wants a rolling deadline for withdrawal that will continue to be pushed back so long as the Iraqi government meets certain goals by certain dates. As soon as they fail to meet a goal, the withdrawal wire is tripped and the troops start to deploy to Okinawa or wherever they hell he thinks they should go. That would calm the worries about an infinite surge while giving the U.S. at shot at victory if the Iraqis show consistent progress.

Which means if Allawi is going to replace Maliki, it’s probably going to happen soon.