NYT: Sadr's power receding

Yesterday, the Associated Press recognized the undeniable in Iraq and reported that the US was “winning”.  Today, the New York Times takes its turn in admitting that the Mahdi Army has lost its grip on power.  Sabrina Tavernise doesn’t go as far as crediting the surge, but it’s the obvious underlying factor in developing the Iraqi Army to its current status:

The militia that was once the biggest defender of poor Shiites in Iraq, the Mahdi Army, has been profoundly weakened in a number of neighborhoods across Baghdad, in an important, if tentative, milestone for stability in Iraq.

It is a remarkable change from years past, when the militia, led by the anti-American cleric Moktada al-Sadr, controlled a broad swath of Baghdad, including local governments and police forces. But its use of extortion and violence began alienating much of the Shiite population to the point that many quietly supported American military sweeps against the group.

Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki struck another blow this spring, when he led a military operation against it in Baghdad and in several southern cities.

The shift, if it holds, would solidify a transfer of power from Mr. Sadr, who had lorded his once broad political support over the government, to Mr. Maliki, who is increasingly seen as a true national leader.

Tavernise does a good job in emphasizing what the Mahdi Army had become.  Too many media outlets treat the Mahdis simply as a sectarian militia, or worse, a political organization.  The Mahdis transformed years ago into organized crime.  They ran protection rackets and controlled the distribution of essentials such as heating oil.  Iraqis in areas under their control paid as much as five times the market price for some goods — money that went into their terrorist and gangster enterprises.

All of that revenue has dissipated, and Sadr has lost almost all of his political standing along with it.  Nouri al-Maliki dumped him in the beginning of the surge, and some people figured Sadr would just extort his way back into power.  So far, though, Maliki has outplayed Sadr, reducing him to a fringe character.  And as he frees more people from the grip of the Mahdis, Maliki marginalizes Sadr even further as they relate how the Mahdis operated as gangsters instead of protectors.

Tavernise reports that these improvements could still be reversed.  If the government in Baghdad gets undermined by a lack of support from the US, the Iraqi Army could lose its edge and the Mahdis could stage a comeback.  Most of the Mahdis have melted away, and could come back at any time.  We need to ensure that the Iraqi government can secure freedom for its citizens and defend against any return of these mujiheddin Mafiosi.