Maliki to tell Iran to butt out

Nouri al-Maliki sent a delegation to Tehran to demand an end to Iranian involvement with Shi’ite militias, the AP reports this morning. The evidence collected during his offensives against the Mahdi Army in Basra and Sadr City will be presented to the Iranians, and Maliki expects Iran to end its subversion of Iraqi sovereignty — a move that may be designed to bolster reconciliation among Iraqi factions:

Iraqi officials say the government has dispatched a delegation to Iran to discuss concerns about the arming and training of Shiite militias in Iraq.

A government official says five Shiite politicians left Wednesday with “evidence, confessions and pictures” indicating that Iran is supplying weapons and training fighters who are locked in a violent standoff with U.S. and Iraqi troops.

The official says the delegation “will seek to clarify … the interference of Iranian leaders.”

Maliki shows more and more confidence since his late-summer efforts in 2007 to reconcile the sectarian and tribal factions in Iraq. Beginning with the surge, he has dumped his alliance with Moqtada al-Sadr in favor of broader coalitions between Sunnis, Kurds, and Shi’ites opposed to Sadr, mainly in the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council. The fight against the Mahdis has given Maliki enough credibility among these factions for Sunnis to rejoin his unity government, isolating Sadr even further.

Standing up to Iran is the next step. Maliki himself appeared too close to Iran in the early days of his tenure, making Sunnis and Kurds especially suspicious of the former Dawa leader. With Sadr on the run, he needs to show now that he will not tolerate Iran propping up any militias in Iraq, and he has that opportunity now. Iran may be in a position where they will have to listen; Sadr has turned into a major disappointment, and all of the Iranian interference has not kept the green Iraqi Army from destroying the inept Mahdis in straight-up military battles.

If the US wanted an ally in the region with the strength to stand up to Iran, the Iraqi mission could be heading for success. Maliki needs to crush the Mahdis to completely secure Iraq internally, and then needs to push the Iranians out of the south altogether and secure Iraq’s borders. Reconciliation appears to be within his grasp, and Iran may find themselves with a much stronger Iraq on their border than they anticipated even a few months earlier.