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The U.S. troop surge in Baghdad reached its peak last summer without ever establishing a real presence in one of the city's most turbulent districts -the vast Shiite slum of Sadr City.

Across the rest of the capital, U.S. and Iraqi forces have set up joint security stations and established relationships with locals on the ground. Everywhere except Sadr City, home to 2.3 million Shiites loyal to the fiery anti-American cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr.

NPR's Jamie Tarabay reports.

JAMIE TARABAY: Major Thomas Sapolla(ph) has a folder somewhere in his office at Camp Liberty, headquarters for the 1st Cavalry Division. In it is a plan drafted in 2004 for taking on Sadr City and the militia that controls it. But the plan was shelved when violence flared elsewhere in the country. At the time, Sapolla says, the U.S. military was still figuring out the fighters in Sadr City, known as Jaish al Mahdi, or the Mahdi army.

Major THOMAS SAPOLLLA (U.S. Army): I don't necessarily know that anybody really knew what Jaish al Mahdi really - really was back then. I mean, it was still in its early stages of development.

TARABAY: Now, three years later, the strength of the Mahdi Army is well-known. U.S. military presence in Sadr City is limited to one joint security station on the western edge of the district. There won't be anything more, says Brigadier General John Campbell without an okay from Iraq's Shiite-dominated government.

Brigadier General JOHN CAMPBELL (U.S. Army): But it's like anything. If you have a plan and you don't have the Iraqi buy-in, it's got to be their plan. And what we haven't been able to do well in the past was to get the Iraqis also to engage in there. You know, they run checkpoints around the outskirts of Sadr City and they wouldn't go inside Sadr City either.

TARABAY: Because?

Brig. Gen. CAMPBELL: I don't know. I mean, a lot of them live in that damn area.

TARABAY: As a result of that, Sadr City's residents have missed out on the benefits other neighborhoods have received because American soldiers are now living amongst them. Those other places are experiencing an improvement in essential services, including electricity.

The experience of Sadr City residents has been completely different. What they've seen of the U.S. military is mostly nighttime assaults, Special Forces raids, and air strikes against what are described as rogue militiamen. They're now demanding more, says General Campbell.

Brig. Gen. CAMPBELL: People are putting pressure on their local officials and saying, hey, we want the same things that those guys have down there. And so that pressure is going to cause them to engage not really only the coalition, but the Iraqis. And we have to get the Iraqis to get involved and provide the essential services there.

TARABAY: The demands for change from Sadr City are growing louder. Contacted by telephone, resident Muhammad al-Sudani(ph) complains about the piles of trash, the ponds of sewage, and the occasional flicker of electricity his street gets.

Mr. MUHAMMAD al-SUDANI: (Through translator) I wish the government would give us such things. I wish the government we voted for would help us, not the Americans. The Americans try to help us and then their planes bomb us at night. I don't want anything from the Americans.

TARABAY: The U.S. military is slowly inching its way into Sadr City's web of dirt roads and squat apartment blocks. American troops now make regular visits to four of the nine police stations in the district, which is about half the size of Manhattan. U.S. commanders want to establish at least four joint security stations in Sadr City with Iraqi troops, but they acknowledge that will take some time. Major Sapolla says the ceasefire Moqtada al-Sadr ordered four months ago has helped calm things down.

With Sunni insurgents in Baghdad now largely under control, he said it is up to the Shiites to decide if they too want to cooperate or risk a return to the civil war that raged here before the U.S. troop surge.

Maj. SAPOLLA: I don't have to go through that history lesson, but you had hundreds and hundreds of people dying every month to vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices. I mean it was insane, and I don't know if there's anybody that is Shia or otherwise that wants to go back to those times. But I mean, it's available. I mean it's an option.

TARABAY: For his part, Moqtada al-Sadr has kept a decidedly low profile since the surge began. The U.S. military claims he's traveled to Iran while his aides insist he remains in the holy Shiite city of Najaf, south of Baghdad. In his most recent statement, Sadr praised his followers for abiding by the ceasefire and called on them to be patient.

Jamie Tarabay, NPR News, Baghdad.

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