Maybe it’s a coincidence?

Iraqi special forces killed the leader of Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mehdi Army militia in the southern Iraqi city of Basra on Friday after he tried to resist arrest, the British military said.

Spokesman Major David Gell said Abu Qader and at least one aide were shot shortly after leaving Sadr’s offices in the centre of the city, the hub of Iraq’s main oilfields. He said the operation was authorised by the Iraqi government.

[Gell] said the operation had been Iraqi-led with British troops acting as advisers.

There’s been a lot of bad mojo about the JAM and southern Iraq in the news lately, from that questionable Guardian piece about Iran inciting the militias as part of its own “summer surge” to the long AP story about Sadr trying to consolidate power in advance of a U.S. withdrawal to the excellent Guardian report about Shiite militia dominance in Basra. If this wasn’t a coincidence, then the British and Maliki are either sending a message to Sadr and his southern capos that they can still make their lives tough if need be or else they’re trying to blast some of his ducks before he can get them in a row and make whatever move he’s planning to make. Gen. Odierno told WaPo that he thinks Sadr came back partly because there are “cracks” in the Mahdi Army that need repairing; officials who spoke to the Times say the same. So now they’ve created another big crack for him to fill before the local chapter splinters and the infighting to fill the power vacuum begins. Don’t be surprised in the next few weeks if other local JAM commanders decide to “resist arrest” and suffer the consequences.

As for Sadr himself, he delivered the sermon today in Kufa and it was, as always, brimming with nuance:

Sadr, who has not been seen since the start of a major U.S.-backed security crackdown in Iraq in February, also sought to stamp his authority on his fractured Mehdi Army militia, calling on them to stop fighting Iraqi forces. The militia has been blamed for much of the violence, particularly in Baghdad.

In a sermon at Friday prayers in the southern city of Kufa, his home base, Sadr also called
Israel, Britain and the United States the “evil trio.” Dressed in traditional black robes and turban, he entered the mosque surrounded by guards and aides.

The instruction about not fighting the Iraqi army is aimed in part at repairing his image as a lunatic Shiite sectarian, which, alas, is what one gets for spending months hiding in Iran and leading a movement known for drilling holes in Sunnis’ skulls. He’s a nonsectarian Iraqi nationalist now, per his deputies’ huggy photo ops lately with a leader of the Sunni awakening in Anbar (the one Rick Ellensburg doesn’t think exists). But there may be a practical reason for it too: if Sadr is serious about his ambitions to take over Iraq, he’ll need the goodwill of Iraqi army leaders. Otherwise they’ll just whack him and install an old-fashioned military dictatorship. Plus, there are plenty of Sadrists within the Iraqi army rank and file (although reportedly not as many as among the Iraqi police), so Mahdi Army/Iraqi army fighting is in some cases a lose/lose proposition for Sadr.

See-Dub thinks it’s time to take him out. I don’t know how you could do that at this point, though, without risking a Shiite uprising that would make things so tough for U.S. troops that Congress would rush to pull the plug. The time to get him was in 2004. We blew it. I think we’re stuck now trying to strengthen the rest of Iraqi institutions sufficiently that when we do leave, they can defeat Sadr — but how you do that with Maliki as prime minister without the U.S. or Britain leaning heavily on him, I don’t know. Meanwhile, some of Odierno’s sources are telling him Sadr might be ready to negotiate with the U.S. secretly. Really? What would be negotiating? A transfer of power?

Elsewhere, Iraq’s top general (a Shiite) has presented Maliki with evidence that 15 MPs are involved in terrorism — all of them, coincidentally, Sunnis. Yet another case of Sunni leaders double-dealing to stab the government in the back, or yet another case of Shiite leaders trumping up charges for partisan reasons? Amazingly, both:

The lawmakers’ recommendations for prosecution include some American allies such as Adnan al-Duleymi, whom American officials say is likely not linked to terrorism. But they also include parliamentarians that the American military leadership believes are senior terrorist operatives, such as Khalaf al-Ayan…

A long-standing complaint for American military officers is that General Aboud has issued target lists to his officers in the Iraqi army that consist only of Sunni suspects and not Shiite death squads, as the Sun first reported on May 3. American commanders in Iraq have shared, for example, information on Shiite legislators, such as a former national security minister under Prime Minister Jafari, Abdul Karim al-Eaneze. But the list of legislators recommended for prosecution includes only Sunnis…

Yesterday, another American official familiar with the prosecution list conceded that only a few of the legislators were tied in a serious way to terrorism.

Update: I missed this from Bush’s press conference yesterday, but the president has apparently taken a new shine to the Baker/Hamilton plan, which calls for withdrawing U.S. combat troops and replacing them with advisors.