STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Two stories, now, about the Middle East and the limits of U.S. power to control events there. In Iraq over the weekend, politicians announced they've agreed to form what they're calling a national partnership government. It would be led by a Shiite coalition, but also include Kurds and Sunnis. In that Shiite coalition would be the current prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, and his onetime arch rival, the radical anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. NPR's Kelly McEvers reports on what this could mean for Iraq and its relations with United States.
KELLY MCEVERS: The Shiite cleric Moqtada al Sadr is best known for heading the Mahdi army, which over the years has waged fierce battles against rival Sunnis, American troops and Iraqi forces. In 2008, Iraqi and American troops cracked down on the Mahdi army, and Sadr ordered a cease-fire. This, plus the American surge and the Sunni Awakening, is credited with the slowdown in violence here in recent years.
Now, though, with Sadr's party poised to join the government, American officials - and many Iraqis - fear the worst.
The Southern port city of Basra at one time was all but controlled by the Mahdi army. Since the 2008 crackdown, markets like this have thrived. The manager of one gold shop, who only wanted to give his first name, Aysun, says a man recently walked into his shop and demanded about $800. He claimed he was a member of the Mahdi army - when I soon took this complaint to police, they ignored it.
AYSUN: (Through Interpreter): The security man, they told me, put it in water, and drink this water.
MCEVERS: Put it in the water, and drink the water - meaning, just get rid of it.
AYSUN: (Through Interpreter) Even the Iraqi police is scared.
MCEVERS: Earlier this month, Mahdi army members who were detained after the 2008 crackdown rioted in a Basra prison. Officials say they threw a grenade that killed one guard, and injured several more.
Major General Vincent Brooks commands U.S. troops in Basra and the surrounding provinces. He says Sadr's return to power is emboldening Sadr's men to try and thwart American projects, and to threaten fellow Iraqis.
Major General VINCENT BROOKS (Commander of U.S. troops in Basra): Sometimes, it's in the form of attacks that begin, score-settling. In other cases, it's direct threats to Iraq Security Force leaders. And there are indications that this emboldenment(ph) has been ongoing for about 30 to 40 days.
MCEVERS: That's about how long it's been since Sadr threw his support behind Maliki. Other analysts say it's better to have Sadr inside the political tent than hiding in the shadows. Hisham al Hashemi advises the Iraqi government on militant groups. He says the lavish life of politicians could temper the Sadrist's violent leanings.
Mr. HISHAM AL HASHEMI (Advisor to Iraqi government on militant groups): (Through Translator) Once they get involved in this civilian life, in this luxurious life, they'll be paying attention more to the car they're going to ride, whether it's Japanese made or German made. So once they experience this luxury, they will stick to it, and they will forget about the past.
MCEVERS: Back in Baghdad, Sadr's advisers acknowledge that recent political talks with Maliki's aids have led to the release of Mahdi army members who were detained back in 2008. But they insist these men are innocent of harming fellow Iraqis. Sadrist Hazem al Ariji says there's nothing wrong with a political party maintaining an armed wing.
Mr. HAZEM AL ARIJI: (Through Translator) The Mahdi army people, and the Sadrists in general, all believe in the wisdom of, and also follow the orders of Moqtada al Sadr, who have frozen you know, have suspended the activities of the Mahdi army. And they are committed to that order.
MCEVERS: That order, Ariji says, does not apply to a small and secretive faction of the Mahdi army called the Promise Day Brigades. The group's sole aim is to target Americans. At this house, back in 2008, three men were detained by American troops for fighting with the Mahdi army. Just this month, they were released from jail.
Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)
MCEVERS: This man says he's killed Americans. But he hasn't killed Iraqis. Now, he says, he's prepared to wage a political battle. But what if Sadr ordered him to take up arms again?
Unidentified Man: (Through Translator) He said yes, anytime. I would be ready.
MCEVERS: As the sun goes down, more Mahdi army men gather around. We won't just fight Americans, one murmurs, but the Iraqis who collaborated with them, too.
Kelly McEvers, NPR News, Baghdad.