On Sunday Nouri al-Maliki admitted defeat in his attempt to crack down on Moqtada al Sadr's Mahdi Army in Basra. Maliki had begun the week demanding that Mahdi forces surrender within 72 hours, calling this "a decisive and final battle." Yet as the disastrous campaign backfired in Basra, Baghdad and elsewhere Maliki pathetically extended the rejected deadline until April 8th. As Patrick Cockburn noted, "Maliki's confident prediction that he would crush the Mehdi Army is turning out to be a dangerous gamble that is fast eroding his authority."

Today Maliki appears to have accepted a humiliating 'compromise' offered by Sadr (h/t Cernig).  The Iraqi government will leave the Mahdi militia alone, which in turn will cease patrolling the streets under arms. It's a return to the status quo ante, except that Sadr has demonstrated his power conclusively - and Maliki his weakness.

The hapless Prime Minister is trying to portray this as a climb-down by Sadr, naturally.

A spokesman for Mr Maliki, Ali al-Dabbagh, told Iraq television the statement was positive.

"As the government of Iraq we welcome this statement. We believe this will support the government of Iraq's efforts to impose security."

His government also is talking tough:

Ali al-Dabbagh...warned in a telephone interview broadcast on Iraqi state TV that security forces would continue to target those who don't follow the order.

"We expect a wide response to this call," he said. "After this announcement, anybody who targets the government and its institutions will be regarded ... as outlaws."

So far western news media have refrained from pointing out how thoroughly Maliki has been humiliated. But the idea that Sadr has given way under pressure is scarcely credible after the Mahdi Army's string of successes this week. The near disintegration of the Iraqi army sent to Basra has been the best possible endorsement of Sadr's political stature, whereas each day brings further disasters for the Iraqi government.

Dozens of Shiite gunmen stormed a state TV facility in central Basra before al-Sadr's declaration Sunday, forcing Iraqi troops guarding the building to flee and setting armored vehicles on fire.

One of al-Maliki's top security officials was killed in a mortar attack against the palace that houses the military operations center, officials said.

The terms offered by Sadr indicate that he is playing the stronger hand. He is offering Maliki a face-saving retreat while staking out the moral high ground.

Moqtada Sadr's statement said: "Because of the religious responsibility, and to stop Iraqi blood being shed, and to maintain the unity of Iraq and to put an end to this sedition that the occupiers and their followers want to spread among the Iraqi people, we call for an end to armed appearances in Basra and all other provinces.

"Anyone carrying a weapon and targeting government institutions will not be one of us."

The cleric also demanded that the government apply the general amnesty law, release detainees and stop what he called illegal raids.

The latter are the same demands Sadr was making before Tuesday's attack in Basra, so in effect he's standing his ground while offering an armistice and a cooling off of tensions. The Mahdi Army will not give up their weapons, as Maliki had demanded.

Furthermore, Sadr's offer included other terms as well, which the western media have not reported. Arab sources indicate that Sadr's nine-point proposal demands the withdrawal of Iraqi and US forces from Basra and, even more embarrassingly, the retreat of Maliki and his Defense and Interior ministers from Basra back to Baghdad within 48 hours. With the acceptance of his 'compromise', Sadr solidifies his power base in Basra.

This Iraqi press release shows the extent to which Maliki has lost face:

Spokesman for the Iraqi government Ali Al-Dabbag, in a press release, said the government welcomed this call which would serve to avoid bloodshed, adding that this reflected Al-Sadr's keenness for maintaining the safety of civilians.

Maliki may have difficulty in holding onto power now. He's shown the incompetence not only of the best military forces under his direct control, but also of the Prime Minister personally. For at least five millenia it's been a truism in Mesopotamia that leaders, if they want to endure, must always avoid implicating themselves in military defeat. By taking charge of operations in Basra, Maliki showed how woefully out of touch he is with Iraqi political wisdom. Of course, at this stage it should surprise nobody that Maliki is incapable of governing. That was almost fated from the moment his name was floated as a compromise candidate in 2006. For Maliki, a former exile under Saddam Hussein, had no political base in Iraq. The Bush administration's misjudgment in backing yet another returned exile as leader in that badly fractured country has had the predictable consequence that the Iraqi government cannot function. It's fair to say at this date that there is no government in Iraq, just the mirage of one.

Update: Fighting continues in Baghdad and Basra, and the truce may not be taking hold in fact. The NYT reports that "the substance of the nine-point statement, released by Mr. Sadr on Sunday afternoon, was hammered out in elaborate negotiations over the past few days with senior Iraqi officials, some of whom traveled to Iran to meet with Mr. Sadr". Sadr's spokesman earlier today told reporters that the Maliki government had accepted the deal in full.

"We confirm that there were guarantees taken from the Iraqi government to fulfill all the points in this statement. Thus, no more random arrests,"

But after Sadr announced the truce, a Maliki spokesman told Reuters that "the operation in Basra will continue and will not stop until it achieves its goals." Now Reuters is reporting also that Mahdi fighters doubt the Iraqi government will honor the terms of the truce. The LA Times, NYT, and Time all report that fighting is continuing, including further US air strikes in Basra. The truce may break down completely, then, before it could even take hold.

Originally posted to Daily Kos on Sun Mar 30, 2008 at 11:02 AM PDT.

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