The Banners Divide
Pajamas Media has a link to an AP story reporting the breakup of the Mahdi Army.
Two senior militia commanders told the Associated Press that hundreds of these fighters have crossed into Iran for training by the elite Quds force, a branch of Iran's Revolutionary Guard thought to have trained Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon and Muslim fighters in Bosnia and Afghanistan.
Naturally, this latest development is described as a new catastrophe for Iraq.
The breakup is an ominous development at a time when U.S. and Iraqi forces are working to defeat religious-based militias and secure Iraq under government control. While al-Sadr's forces have battled the coalition repeatedly, including pitched battles in 2004, they've mostly stayed in the background during the latest offensive.
Apparently, the split is caused by disagreement of what direction the Mahdi Army should take. Sadr has opted to wait things out in Teheran, leaving his underlings to bicker over which way to go.
At the Pentagon, a military official confirmed there were signs the Mahdi Army was splintering. Some were breaking away to attempt a more conciliatory approach to the Americans and the Iraqi government, others moving in a more extremist direction, the official said. However, the official, who was not authorized to be quoted by name on the topic, was not aware of direct Iranian recruitment and financing of Mahdi Army members. ...
The militia commanders and al-Maliki's reports identify the leader of the breakaway faction as Qais al-Khazaali, a young Iraqi cleric who was a close al-Sadr aide in 2003 and 2004. He was al-Sadr's chief spokesman for most of 2004, when he made nearly daily appearances on Arabic satellite news channels. He has not been seen in public since late that year. ...
While Al-Sadr's strategy appears to be to wait out the government offensive and preserve his force, his absence has left loyal fighters unsure of his future and pondering whether they had been abandoned by their leader, the commanders said. l-Sadr tried to return to Iraq last month but turned back before he reached the Iraqi border upon learning of U.S. checkpoints on the road to Najaf, the Shiite holy city south of Baghdad where he lives.
I think the cruellest construction to put on events is that Moqtada al Sadr has discovered he hasn't got the intestinal fortitude to lead a real, live shooting fight against the Coalition. Certain of his adherents apparently share that point of view and may be negotiating with the Iraqi government. But as is common in the Middle East, the militant high ground never remains vacant for long and a new wannabee Madhi has taken the mantle on himself. But he may find it requires more than a cloak and banner to lead. It may require even more than Iran is willing to give.