What did he have to do to win? Well, once again, he didn't start or provoke the fight. In fact, he had recently renewed his organisation's ceasefire, so anything short of his being decisively defeated is by default a victory for him. Maliki's stated goal was to disarm the Mahdi Army, and that clearly isn't going to happen. Maliki tried to use the 'Iraqi forces' in order to defeat the Mahdi, but found he couldn't. Some Iraqi police refused to fight, while others took their guns and went to fight for the other side. Basra was decisively in Mahdi control. In short order, Baghdad, Kut, Karbala, Nasiriyah, Hilla and several southern cities and towns were in revolt. Hassan Jumaa of Iraq's main oil union reported that there was a widespread popular revolt, and there is evidence that both the US and Maliki feared the development of a combined national revolt. While Maliki had pleaded with the occupiers to stay out of fighting, lest it be seen as a war of occupation versus resistance (and the Dawa Party will not look good in the upcoming elections if he is seen as the occupiers' puppet), it wasn't long before he had to call them in. Now, it looks like they're having to settle for an Iranian-brokered ceasefire that leaves Sadr's organisation intact and his political standing immensely enhanced. What's more, it seems the negotiations were instigated by Maliki's government: "We asked Iranian officials to help us convince him that we were not cracking down on the Sadr group", said an Iraqi official. From "worse than Al Qaeda" to "pwease lets be fwends" is a big shift. Sadr's order for his militias to get off the streets is a test of his control over the organisation, but it is hardly a white flag.
Consider the position of the occupiers in all this. There is now a story going round that US officials didn't know that the attack on Basra was coming. As Marc Lynch points out, this is hardly credible. It is highly unlikely that Cheney's recent visit to Iraq didn't involve some discussion of the Sadrists. Assuming what appears to be obvious, namely that this attack was ordered by the US, then what is the upshot? If the US is obliged to accept an Iranian-backed peace deal, it isn't because they were militarily defeated. The US was bombing from a great height, and could easily have destroyed Basra and its inhabitants and the Mahdi fighters. The fact that this is not Fallujah is not because of the superior rifle power or military training of Sadr's supporters. It is because of Sadr's currently unmatched political power.
All of this is evidence that the Sadrists are improving their act. Have a look at these snippets from Moqtada al-Sadr's recent interview on Al Jazeera:
Here, he positions himself as a leader of the resistance struggle and calls upon Arab states to lend the struggle political support. In reports of his wider remarks, he is said to have described the liberation of Iraq as the central strategic goal of the Mahdi, and predicted that the US will fall in Iraq as they did in Vietnam. Well, there's no doubt that this could happen, but for all that the similarities with Vietnam are rightly highlighted, there remains one staggering difference: there is no equivalent to the Viet Minh. There is not an organisation with the authoritative legitimacy, discipline, centralised power and political nous to even come close. The Mahdi cannot be that organisation, and of course Sadr is probably well aware of this, which is why he has been reaching out to Sunni resistance groups. Who could launch a Tet Offensive in Iraq today? That attack, a turning point which guaranteed the shortening of the American war, required a mass peasant army with fearsome self-control and a leadership with a sophisticated analysis of the domestic politics of the US and how the operation would impact on it. The army would not have been there for the fight had the Viet Minh not been able to offer a coherent strategy for national liberation and unite that with the declared goal of emancipating the peasantry. Any end to the American war in Iraq will result from the consolidation of a national federation of resistance groups with a singular political vision that offers something to the dispossessed Iraqi working class. Yet, for all the limits of Sadr's movement, he continues to rack up successes, to take his would-be terminators by surprise, and to consolidate his standing every time someone tries to take him down a peg or two.