RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
The U.S. hires private security firms to free regular troops from missions like this. The 82nd Airborne Division is deployed in northeast Baghdad. They want to control a Shia-Muslim militia, the Mahdi army. It's a violent and divided group. Its leader, Moqtada al Sadr, publicly says he'll never meet with Iraq's occupiers, but his aides have secretly done just that.
NPR's Anne Garrels has the second of two reports updating the U.S. troop surge in Baghdad.
(Soundbite of children playing)
ANNE GARRELS: In a poor Shiite neighborhood, Captain Will Camden(ph) jokes with local children and their parents to distract them. Others in his team have fanned out looking for a Shiite militiaman who has targeted U.S. and Iraqi forces.
Captain WILL CAMDEN (U.S. Army): We got information saying that there's probably a bad guy who was pushed out. We've gotten new reports that he's back in the area so we're just kind of putting our presence back out here, seeing if anybody has anything to say. It might take two or three visits to this neighborhood to get something legitimate.
GARRELS: U.S. commanders first ignored Sadr, then they called all Sadr followers terrorists. Now they appreciate Sadr is a major player, even though his movement is badly split and Sadr has lost control of many who claimed to be in his Jaish al Mahdi, or Mahdi army. You'll here it also called JAM. Going a one step further to encourage those who might be willing to work within the system, U.S. officers now make a distinction between good JAM and bad.
Capt. CAMDEN: So our message when we go out there and we target people is, you know, we're not targeting Jaish al Mahdi. We're targeting criminals and terrorists in your neighborhoods.
GARRELS: Good or bad, the Mahdi army has a firm grip in most of the capital Shiite neighborhoods, especially Sadr City, and it's reached deep inside the army and the police. But if the Sadr movement was early on seen as a protector of Shiites, gunmen acting in its name are killing, kidnapping and extorting money, and there's evidence a growing number of people are fed up.
Ahmed(ph) lives in the sprawling slum of Sadr City, named after Sadr's father, a charismatic and respected ayatollah.
AHMED (Resident, Sadr City): (Through translator) People who say everyone in Sadr City supports JAM are wrong. We are forced to say that they are good - the best - because if you say something else, you are going to get hurt.
GARRELS: The 82nd is trying to take advantage of growing opposition and the rifts within JAM itself, which means they need to be careful. American soldiers regularly do targeted raids in Sadr City but have limited their permanent presence to one small outpost in one small corner of this densely populated slum. A larger presence could inflame tensions. Part of the strategy is to clean up the police so they will be an alternative to the militias, not their partners. Ahmed says, in essence, dream on.
AHMED: (Through translator) We would prefer the government and police to control everything, but what's the benefit if the police in Sadr City take their orders from the Mahdi army?
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GARRELS: At the small Sadr City joint security station, U.S. soldiers and Iraqi police joke around, but the relationship is far from easy. No one trusts anyone. The U.S. doesn't trust the police. The policemen don't trust each other. Nonetheless, U.S. commanders point to progress.
Once the U.S. was able to protect his family from attack, the general in charge of the national police here has cooperated more. The U.S. has detained several top police officials in the area for facilitating JAM's criminal activities.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki balked at operations against Sadr's supporters in the past, but U.S. commanders say he now gives his approval.
Sergeant Donald Lee Nap(ph) says some of the police are providing good tips. It's not something a policeman would readily admit on microphone.
Sergeant DONANLD LEE NAP (U.S. Army): He is scared that some of the people here that may go back and say something to some of the JAM members, which could cause problems for him and his family. That's why he don't want to give names, places, things like that.
GARRELS: Ever or just not in publis?
Sgt. LEENAP: Just not there. Night or day, or we just be out in the yard somewhere, and he'll come up and tell me information. Different guys, not just him.
GARRELS: Part of it is self-interest. When JAM targets U.S. troops, they often hit the police too.
Captain Matthew Pewn(ph) is impressed at how quickly criminal elements can still regenerate. He says as soon as the U.S. hits one cell, another pops up. He believes most people in this area are still unwilling or too afraid to stand up to JAM.
Captain MATTHEW PEWN (U.S. Army): Until the locals reject that criminal element and reject that extremist element, I don't see a lot of headway.
GARRELS: Sadr himself is wrestling with a movement that appears divided over how to move forward. In a tacit acknowledgment he's lost control of his armed militia, Sadr recently announced he would suspend military activities so the militia could be reorganized. Violence immediately dropped.
But Lieutenant Colonel David Oclander says it hasn't stopped.
Lieutenant Colonel DAVID OCLANDER (U.S. Army): The two elements where we have not seen that same discipline is with the rogue JAM, and those are really just criminal elements that are vying for turf in their area in order to dominate locals and tax the locals, intimidate the locals, et cetera. And then the third organization is the special groups, which is heavily influenced by the Iranians.
GARRELS: There is another sign that some Sadrists are looking for ways to work within the system. In order to bolster their standing, they need to provide services to the people, and for this they need the government and the U.S. There have been secret meetings with the Americans. And some tribal leaders tied to Sadr will even meet with commanders in public. The finesse is that they do it in their capacity as tribal leaders, not as Sadrists.
Such meetings are still very delicate and potentially dangerous. Sadr extremists attacked and severely wounded the former mayor of Sadr City for entering into talks with Americans.
So far, Lieutenant Colonel Richard Kim(ph) says, the balance of power is with the bad guys.
Lieutenant Colonel RICHARD KIM (U.S. Army): I think that the shrink is there is still a lot of poor, young, sometimes non-educated, unemployed, that's out there and they still have enough weapons. They still have enough means to intimidate those people.
GARRELS: U.S. officers can try to influence some of Sadr's followers, but ultimately the movement has to resolve its own raging debates.
Anne Garrels, NPR News, Baghdad.