Hmmn. So did the Mehdi Army capture 17 US soldiers yesterday or not? Nobody has picked up the story from Al Wasat (a news front for an Islamic religious group) yet. But that doesn't mean it hasn't happened.
Moqtada's group has been claiming that their latest actions are in response to repeated random arrests of their members by the US military and al-Maliki's police. So this would be a predictable response. But if it's true, would Moqtdada, the USA or al-Maliki really want to go public with this story?
Moqtada knows that patience is the key to defeating the USA in Iraq. I don't think he is looking for a prolongued, full-scale, military showdown, especially when the public mood in Iraq is now decidedly anti-violence. Publicly he is only calling for "civil disobedience", even while his rampaging supporters declare that he has officially terminated the cease-fire agreement.
So what's going on? Dick Cheney was just in the Middle East, and violence tends to follow his visits. Did he tell al-Maliki to come down hard on Moqtada (as this WaPo story very strongly suggests)? Is that why the White House keep stressing that this is an "Iraqi-led and Iraqi-initiated" operation?
If that's the case, Moqtada might be keeping these US soldiers in safe storage somewhere, until al-Maliki calls off his attack dogs and things settle down. Someone very senior in the US Green Zone compound might need to make a quiet deal with Moqtada if they don't want this embarrassing story to hit the news stands. That would play into the Mehdi Army's hands quite nicely, wouldn't it?
OTOH the US military could go public themselves, and declare that these soldiers had been "taken hostage" by Moqtada. That would be a great excuse for a full-scale assault on the Mehdi Army across Iraq. But they probably don't have a clue where the soldiers are being kept (still assuming the story is true, of course) so the whole thing could turn into a massive PR nightmare on the only battlefield that really counts: the USA's TV screens.
I mean, for starters, just imagine Bush calling for Moqtada to respect the "quaint" terms of the Geneva Convention. Then imagine a steady stream of videos with bedraggled young US soldiers reading out forced confessions, or tearfully saying farewell to loved ones while hooded thugs with machetes stand behind them shouting "Moqtada! Moqtada!" (as they did at Saddam's hanging). Then think of Reagan's Iran hostage crisis. You get the picture.
Maybe we won't hear any more about these captured US soldiers. Maybe they will quietly return to base in a few weeks, once all the violence has died down again, and be told to keep their mouths shut. Maybe....