Condoleezza Rice landed in Iraq this morning in an unscheduled visit with Nouri al-Maliki, the first top-level American visit since Maliki launched his operations against the Mahdi militia. The day before, Moqtada al-Sadr threatened to end his cease-fire if the operations didn’t cease. Rice told reporters that the US considers that an internal matter for Iraqis to resolve, but obviously took a great interest in observing the results:

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice flew to Baghdad on Sunday to strengthen the Iraqi government’s efforts to isolate Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who has threatened an “open war” on security forces.

Underscoring the threat of widening violence, the U.S. military said it killed 20 militiamen overnight in clashes in the cleric’s Baghdad stronghold of Sadr City. A military spokesman called it the capital’s “hottest night” in weeks.

Arriving on an unannounced visit, Rice said she wanted to support what she called a new political “centre” in Iraq that has backed Shi’ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s crackdown on Sadr’s Mehdi Army militia.

“You have seen a coalescing of a centre in Iraqi politics in which the Sunni leadership, the Kurdish leadership and the elements of the Shia leadership that are not associated with these special groups have been working together better than at any time before,” Rice told reporters travelling with her.

“Special groups” means those elements of the Mahdi Army receiving direction from Iran’s Quds Force, the terrorist arm of the Revolutionary Guards. The US has usually referred to these Mahdis as “rogue elements”, as does the Reuters report, in an attempt to give Sadr an opportunity to save face and to eschew arms for politics. It hasn’t worked, although circumstances forced Sadr to leave Iraq after the beginning of the surge.

Sadr has threatened to end his cease-fire, but he has already lost Basra and Umm Qasr. His Mahdis have strength in Sadr City in Baghdad, but they are being reduced block by block with a combined effort from the Iraqi Army and US forces. He may not have much ground from which to conduct his war, and the threat underscores the myth that the Mahdis have “rogue elements” at all.

Besides, as Rice points out, no viable state can abide large private armies controlling its sovereign territory, especially not when receiving significant assistance from another nation. If Sadr thought Maliki would never challenge his position, then he is either naive or overconfident. Maliki has spent the last three years building an army at least five times the size of Sadr’s, with much better recruitment, training, and supply. Maliki doesn’t want a war with Sadr, but he wants a war with the Sunnis, the Kurds, and SCIRI Shi’ites even less. Sadr overreached years ago and now the bill has come due.

Rice’s visit, I notice, has not gained much media attention today. She still can’t openly announce a visit ahead of time, but the almost non-story of her visit to Baghdad indicates a certain trend to normality.