Longtime HA readers will have a basic idea of what this is about; readers of Bill Roggio’s site, Long War Journal, will grasp the significance instantly. The U.S. military has been playing a rhetorical game with Sadr and the JAM for years now as a way to avoid alienating his Shiite supporters. American soldiers never battle the Mahdi Army, you see. What they battle are, ahem, “special groups” of rogue Shiite militiamen who might call themselves Mahdi Army but surely can’t be legitimate members or else they’d be observing the truce laid down by our friend, sayyid Muqtada. Roggio and Daveed Gartenstein-Ross wrote an essential post about this recently explaining what the “special groups” nonsense is all about. Read it all, please, but here’s the money bit:

The military has taken a carrot-and-stick approach with Sadr and the Mahdi Army, encouraging Sadr to maintain the ceasefire that he declared in August 2007. As a result of this approach, the American military sees two strategic purposes behind trumpeting divisions between Sadr and the special groups. First, it is a face-saving tool. The military is able to save face by not labeling Sadr a terrorist, and thus maintaining its ability to engage him. Sadr in turn is able to save face before the Iraqi public: Whenever he quells the special groups’ violent actions, he won’t be seen as backing down before the U.S. because (according to this narrative) he did not initiate the violence in the first place. Second, the military hopes to drive an actual wedge between Sadr and some of the more violent Mahdi Army factions through this rhetoric…

American soldiers on the ground see little distinction between the Mahdi Army and the special groups.

Has the wedge been driven? Say hello to the special-est group of all:

Radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr revealed Friday that he plans to create a powerful new fighting force to battle what he calls “the occupiers” in Iraq…

“The resistance will be carried out exclusively by a special group which I will announce later,” Sadr’s statement read, adding that “weapons will be in the hands of this group exclusively and will only be directed at the occupier,” using standard terms for the American forces in Iraq.

He warned that those who disobey will be “will not be with me.”

In other words, he’s reclaiming his brand by embracing the Americans’ fiction. From now on, if you’re an Iraqi soldier being shot at or a shopkeeper being shaken down or an Iraqi woman being threatened for not wearing a hijab by the local Mahdi Army scum, unless they’re part of the elite unit of armed fighters Sadr’s planning to create then by definition they’re not official JAM and he shouldn’t be held responsible. This is, in all likelihood, a reaction to the new respect the Iraqi army’s earned by restoring order in Basra and penetrating Sadr City, such that Sadr doesn’t want to be seen on the wrong side of them if some of his guys attack, but the truth is that predatory JAM behavior among the Shiites has been eroding his standing for months now. His previous solution was to bring out the long knives and beat or kill the worst offenders, but I guess he finally concluded there were too many to deal with. Solution: Declare everyone who picks up a gun without his explicit authorization a de facto “special group” member, whom the U.S. or Iraqi army can target as they see fit. Everyone wins!