Good news in the short term, bad news in the long term, but we can’t even think long term without some more short-term success, so here goes nothing.

Fighters such as Abu Maha have taken on a new role in recent months in the militia of Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr. Instead of battling Sunni insurgents and U.S. troops, they are now weeding out what they consider to be black sheep within their ranks.

Sadr, whose Mahdi Army has as many as 60,000 members, has been trying to make his movement a viable political factor, and more appealing to his hundreds of thousands of followers. In late August, he declared a six-month freeze in hostilities to rein in lawless elements after deadly clashes with a rival Shiite militia…

“What we want to do during this period is to establish a new order, to collect the people who are professional, educated and have good information, who are good, faithful in our social works and are helping the people,” said Sadr’s chief spokesman Sheik Salah Ubaidi…

In west Baghdad, Sadr’s local offices regularly send out such enforcers. But across the river, the militia’s punishment committee relies on a special force, the Golden Battalion, to discipline the worst offenders, who are taken to Najaf for punishment.

Read the LAT piece for a vivid account of a Mahdi Army capo who started off as a local guardian of the Shia against the Sunnis and ended up as some sort of rich pimp. His story ends with JAM beating him with rifle butts and breaking all four of his limbs. This goes right back to that Times story two months ago about the influx of teen punks and mafiosi into the Mahdi Army as lieutenants were kicked upstairs into government positions and the Sunni onslaught quieted down, leaving them with nothing to do but collect protection money and rough people up. That image isn’t earning Sadr any goodwill with the Shiite population that he counts on for support and there are already rumblings, however faint, of Shiite sheikhs trying to pull together an Anbar strategy. By busting the heads of “rogue” JAM members himself, Sadr’s doing damage control and reasserting his authority. Which … is a bad outcome, because the more atomized and inclined to petty crime the militant Shiite element is, the more quickly the locals will turn against them, the easier it’ll be for the Iraqi army to divide and conquer, and the greater the chance that Sadr will be fatally politically wounded.

So why is Petraeus letting it happen? Because, thanks to Sadr’s ceasefire, the more control the Mahdi Army has over its operatives, the easier it is to keep the peace going. And in the short term that’s exactly what we need. Hence this alternate-universe passage from WaPo:

Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top American commander in Iraq, said Thursday he applauds Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr for helping, through a cease-fire, to reduce violent attacks in Iraq by 60 percent since June. It was unusual praise by a U.S. official for a relentless critic of the American role here…

Among several factors leading to the reduced violence, Petraeus pointed to what he called the decision by “a majority . . . of the militia” associated with Sadr to honor a cease-fire.

In striking contrast to the U.S. military’s previous wariness — if not hostility — toward the young firebrand cleric, Petraeus praised Sadr personally for “working to rid his movement of criminal elements” and making a “pledge of honor” to uphold the cease-fire announced in August. He said the United States is in indirect dialogue with “senior members” of Sadr’s organization to maintain the cease-fire.

“The Sadr trend stands for service to the people,” and the goal is for Sadr and his followers to become “constructive partners in the way ahead,” Petraeus said in an interview with defense reporters traveling with Gates.

How’s Sadr feeling about all this? Two days ago: “I say this to the evil Bush – leave my country… We do not need you and your army of darkness.” That’s for public consumption, of course; what’s going on behind the scenes is yours to guess. The X factor, as always, is Iran and what they’re doing, or might do, with the “rogue” JAM members who are now being targeted for termination. Offering them protection from Sadr would be an easy way to expand their influence. They’re going to cannibalize some of these local renegade Shiites no matter what happens but it seems more dangerous to me at least that Sadr might cleanse them, reassert control over a wide swath of the Shiite population, and then make some sort of deal at the top to give Iran much broader access. Better to neutralize him and let Iran have to put that influence together piecemeal.

Or maybe I’m wrong and Sadr’s influence is much less significant than thought. Bill Ardolino tells me that all the time; this, at least, is a small point in his favor. Creepy exit quotation from the LAT piece:

Last month, a gang that no longer answered to Sadr marched through Jihad brandishing heavy machine guns and rocket launchers, so the Sadr office sent a delegation to ask them to drop their weapons, but they refused.

“So the good Mahdi Army started chasing them. They arrested four of the bad Mahdi Army and turned them over to the Iraqi army with their weapons,” said Jihad’s local council chief, Malhan Abu Jalal.