Iraqi soldiers have begun evacuating families from portions of Sadr City, a sign that a large offensive will start shortly against the Mahdi Army militia that have long controlled the sector of Baghdad. Two stadiums have been secured for sheltering the evacuees as the government of Nouri al-Maliki attempts to break Moqtada al-Sadr’s last stronghold and end mortar attacks on the Green Zone. Maliki also wants to end Iran’s influence in Iraq, which caused Iran to cut off security talks with Maliki and the US:

Iraqi soldiers for the first time warned residents in the embattled Sadr City district to leave their houses Thursday, signaling a new push by the U.S.-backed forces against Shiite extremist who have been waging street battles for seven weeks.

Iraqi soldiers, using loudspeakers, told residents in some virtually abandoned areas of southeastern Sadr City to go to nearby soccer stadiums, residents said. UNICEF says about 6,000 people have been forced to flee their homes in Sadr City, most of them from the southeastern section.

U.S. forces have increased air power and armored patrols in an attempt to cripple Shiite militia influence in Sadr City, a slum of 2.5 million people that serves as the Baghdad base for the Mahdi Army led by anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

The U.S. military is trying to weaken the militia’s grip in the slum and disrupt rocket and mortar strikes from Sadr City on the U.S.-protected Green Zone, which includes the U.S. Embassy and key Iraqi government offices.

Maliki needs an end to Sadr’s militia if he expects to retain his cross-sectarian political coalition, especially in Baghdad. Basra was an important step in establishing sovereignty, but the capital is the ultimate goal. No government can truly claim sovereignty when hostile armed forces control parts of its own capital, and especially when those forces conduct regular attacks on other parts of the city.

Since Sadr refused to disband the militia, Maliki has little choice but to root it out and destroy it. The US and Iraqi forces have already started doing that by building barriers to keep the Mahdis locked into known positions, with some skirmishes already taking place in Sadr City. Now that they have the battleground defined, the next step will be the military action that will end the Mahdi Army as an organization and establish lawful control over the last of the rebel ground Sadr controls.

This will likely take weeks to complete. Once the battle starts, expect to read and hear plenty of media reports emphasizing civilian deaths, setbacks in the battle, defections in the Iraqi Army, and statements of defiance from Sadr. What we won’t hear is progress by Maliki and the US in finishing off Sadr’s forces until it suddenly becomes impossible to ignore it — and then we will hear about how inept the Iraqi forces were in achieving victory.

Call it the Basra Narrative. Just because it failed in Basra doesn’t mean the defeatist media won’t use it again, and again, and again.