Nahrainnet points out this morning
that really and truly, what is happening in Amara is a case of Maliki doing the occupation's work for them:
The southern city of Amara, which has been in de facto defiance of the American and British occupation forces for the last four years, is now surrounded on all sides by government forces with over 200 tanks and armored vehicles, along with air cover from American and British fighter planes. The aim is to impose government control over the city, end the existence of the Army of the Imam Mahdi in it, and squeeze the Sadrist movement, particularly given the fact that this is one of its most important strongholds in the provinces of the South. This has been one of the aims of the occupation forces, but one that they have been unable to carry out. The task has been turned over to the government, to carry it out with an Iraqi hand.
But at the same time, as Nahrainnet has also noted, the governor and other Sadrist authorities locally have been very careful in their statements to welcome the operation in principle, as a manifestation of legitimate national-government jurisdiction in cooperation with the local government. The concerns that they have expressed have been about possible abuses in the course of the operation, not about the operation itself.
It is an apparent paradox: A frontal assault on the Sadrists that the local Sadrists officials themselves have not seen fit to criticize in principle. And it is twinned with another apparent paradox, which has to do with the "militia" and "political party" concepts within the Sadrist movement. By designating only specific elements as qualified to fight the occupation forces, Sadr has made the default position in the movement one of non-violent or "cultural" activity. And likewise, by indicating possible participation in the local elections, not as a "party" but in effect as a "movement", with movement support for candidates on the lists of a variety of blocs and parties (there has been particular mention of working in this way with Jaafari's new group, and with Allawi's), the movement is positioning itself not only as a non-militia, but also as something more even than a political party.
The lack of vocal opposition to the military operation by Amara Sadrists has been explained as a sign of weakness. And similarly, the "no militia" and "no party" moves have been explained as an election-ploy to get around a potential ban on participation by "parties" that have "militias". But I don't think these explanations get to the root of the matter.
By way of background: The list of parties registered for participation in the coming local elections shows the enormous popularity of the idea of a "national" ideology, something that has been pointed out by Reidar Visser in a recent essay, and also by AlHayat in a piece this morning
that reviews some of the bigger new formations, including Jaafari's "National Reform Trend", and Allawi's "National Iraqi Front" (to be announced in a few days, the AlHayat journalist says). The common theme is renunciation of narrow loyalties in favor of national loyalties, and what that means in particular, the writer explains, is renunciation of the idea of parceling out spheres of influence based on a supposedly equitable division of small-group interests, something that has proved to be a failure; and also renunciation of militias.
I think a lot can be explained by the hypothesis that the Sadrists and others are primarily interested in getting solidly aligned with this nationalist (as opposed to sectarian) ideology, in the face of particular challenges or provocations from Maliki and the Americans. In particular: (1) If there are to be problems in the Amara operation, it will not be because the local Sadrists resisted the legitimate law-enforcement claims of the national government; rather, it will be the result of sectarian implementation by forces that only claim to represent the national interest, but that has yet to be demonstrated. (Or by American participation via air-strikes, which has also yet to be demonstrated). (2) Similarly, in terms of electoral strategy, if there are to be maneuvers against the Sadrist trend (and in this case there already are), then the correct response is not to intensify the Sadrists' own group-identity, but rather to go in the other direction, and emphasize the fact that their aims and objectives go beyond small-group identity and instead are compatible with the nationalist aims of others coming from a variety of different groups (Allawi's collection; Jaafari's break-away Dawa group).
Overall, the continuation by Maliki of his "enforcing the law" campaigns in cities that are strongholds of political movements that oppose him, and oppose the American occupation (Basra, Sadr City, Mosul, now Amara) clearly represent what you could call a "sectarian" strategy, based on vilification of political enemies as common criminals, and this is obviously a strategy that the Americans have been quite comfortable with. The expectation would be that the groups in question would fight back as groups. But what I think the Sadrists and others recognize is that this would intensify the pattern of sectarian conflict, and because the sectarian approach is no longer broadly acceptable
(if it ever was), those fighting in principle as particular groups against the national government, no matter who they are, would eventually lose popular support. Hence the acceptance, in Amara for example, of a national government role in law-enforcement until such time as the sectarian-American nature of Maliki's intervention is demonstrated; and similarly the acceptance of the idea of a broad-movement type of participation in the local elections, as opposed to specific Sadrist-party lists. In each case, it is a question of not taking the sectarian bait, and instead stepping back and responding to sectarian attacks with a nationalist response.
The problem for America is that the part I have italicized above hasn't been understood. America continues to support Maliki in his sectarian attacks on rival groups, attempting to prolong and eventually "win" a sectarian battle where any group opposed to the Maliki-America alliance is eventually attacked with tanks and warplanes. There has grown up in America a whole industry devoted to the issues of "asymmetric warfare" that result from this strategy. But I think it is possible that what they are facing now--whatever the situation may be with the armed resistance groups--includes something quite different, possibly new. The normal routine has been to pick a tribe and then manage the ensuing civil war and eventual elections and so on. In this case there seems to have been a learning curve, but only on the Iraqi side, not the American. America continues to pick its tribe (in this case Maliki and his circle), but the Iraqis are failing to behave as expected: Instead of taking up arms (or even political activity) in a direct confrontation with the Chosen Tribe (and implicitly on behalf of the "other" tribe), the prevailing Iraqi strategy seems to be to deny the paramountcy of any such "tribal" concept. This means that the Maliki-American campaigns--attacks on their rival groups in Basra, Amara and elsewhere--are accepted insofar as they have any bona fide national-government law-enforcement element, and rejected insofar as they go beyond that into collusion with the occupation and sectarian attacks. It is a bit subtle for the likes of the American media and punditry, where it is assumed that the only alternatives are sustained armed resistance on the one hand, or defeat on the other.
The prevailing view in America seems to be that the Sadrists (along with other enemies of the American occupation) are on the ropes because of having backed off from sustained armed resistance. I think the mistake is that the Americans still see themselves as fighting a sectarian war--because that is what they have brainwashed themselves into thinking is the natural state of affairs--while the prevailing view in Iraq is that there isn't a sectarian war, but rather a struggle against the whole idea of sectarianism (and its godfather the foreign occupation). And in a kind of cross-fertilization of political and armed-resistance thinking, the result is that anyone who behaves as if there is such a sectarian war is only showing himself to be a friend of the occupier.