This was unexpected.
NAJAF, Iraq, March 30 (Reuters) – Iraqi Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr called on his armed followers on Sunday to leave the streets and stop battling government forces in Basra and other southern towns.
[…] In his statement Sadr denied that his followers possessed heavy weapons. He said the government should stop large-scale arrests of his followers and implement an amnesty to free prisoners held in detention.
I should probably dispel any misunderstanding about what this is and what it’s not. Sadr is saying that his militia will stop fighting as long as Maliki and the US don’t attack him, plus some demands for prisoner amnesty. The Mehdi army will hand its weapons over, Sadr, says, but only to a government ready to kick the Americans out of Iraq. If Sadr meant to surrender he would have asked people to hand over their weapons and pleaded for terms. This is Sadr asking Maliki to accept that his mission to cripple the Mehdi army has failed. It says that Sadr and not Maliki has the power to control this fight, and early reports seem to be bearing that out.
The decision for Maliki must be painful. Honoring Sadr’s terms would make him look weak, but as things stood the Iraqi government was on a short path to losing Basra and most of the Shiite south. The choice between losing now or losing later isn’t much of a choice.
Sadr, meanwhile, looks a lot like a guy who would rather win democratically in November than knock the government over and take power as a warlord. For Iraqis it must make an interesting contrast.