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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

A leader of two failed uprisings against US forces has re-emerged in Iraq. Moqtada al-Sadr last made headlines when his militia battled Americans in Najaf, Baghdad and elsewhere. Now he's working to reshape his movement as a populist political force. In this part of the program, we're going to one of Sadr's strongholds, a desperately poor area called Sadr City on the edge of Baghdad. NPR's Eric Westervelt found a nervous peace there between Sadr's followers and US soldiers.

(Soundbite of people talking)

ERIC WESTERVELT reporting:

Last summer, Sadr City was on fire. Soldiers of the US 1st Cavalry Division engaged in all-out combat with young Shia loyal to Moqtada al-Sadr. By fall, after hundreds of Sadr's Mahdi Army fighters were killed in battle, the cleric agreed to disarm his private army and turn his movement into a political force.

(Soundbite of children)

Unidentified Man #1: I've got to go. I've got to go.

(Soundbite of children)

Unidentified Man #2: ...(Unintelligible) ready.

WESTERVELT: These days, 3rd Infantry Division soldiers face kids, not militiamen, while patrolling the area's notoriously filthy streets. The children demand soccer balls, and once in a while, they throw rocks. Sergeant First Class Frederick Nickens is with Charlie Company 315 Infantry.

Sergeant First Class FREDERICK NICKENS (Charlie Company 315 Infantry): Sadr City is really quiet. We just pray that nothing does happen, there's no uprising or anything like that.

WESTERVELT: It's quiet, in part, because radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr is trying to transform his image from militia leader and religious militant into populist statesman. While Sadr denounced the January elections as a sham, several of his followers won seats in the National Assembly, and two now hold ministries in the interim government. And here in the cleric's Baghdad base, his followers now work, unofficially anyway, with US and Iraqi officials on the issues central to this Shiite slum of two million: security and services. It's a delicate dance filled with mutual mistrust, borne of two all-out battles.

Unidentified Man #3: (Foreign language spoken)

WESTERVELT: As you go further north in this district into areas where fighting was the fiercest last summer, the lingering mistrust bursts into outright contempt. A sign on a lamppost of a masked figure with an AK-47 warns darkly against collaborating with the enemy.

Second Lieutenant VOCHAY ZAJACK(ph) (US Army): It was basically a warning to locals not to cooperate with coalition forces; spies, what they call them, including our translators.

WESTERVELT: Army Second Lieutenant Vochay Zajack says the Sadr City calm does not translate into cooperation.

2nd Lt. ZAJACK: People are so scared, they are not willing to talk to us. We had assistance programs such as helping develop small businesses in Sadr City. Business owners are scared even to talk to us or to talk ...(unintelligible) money.

WESTERVELT: When Iraqis do talk, it's usually to tell the Americans the same grievances soldiers here have heard since the fall of Saddam two years ago: inadequate water, sewer, garbage and electric service. Sadoun Hassan al-Malaki(ph) points to a street filled with eight inches of raw sewage water right next to the busy Sharikay Market(ph) in western Sadr City.

Mr. SADOUN HASSAN AL-MALAKI: (Foreign language spoken)

WESTERVELT: `I don't care if it's the Americans or the Iraqis. We just need someone to clean up this area,' al-Malaki says. The US Army and interim Iraqi government have made small-step improvements here, but wastewater from local homes still pours directly onto the narrow dirt streets from old drainage pipes. Above, makeshift illegal electrical wires are strung precariously from house to house. Unemployment is estimated at 70 percent. A US Army Corps of Engineers official says the US has spent $160 million in Sadr City so far to improve basic services. And that cash on the street has helped keep the local Sadr bureau, the clerics' operations base, tolerant of the US presence. Army Captain Stephen Johnson, 315 Infantry's task force engineer, tracks all reconstruction projects in Sadr City.

Captain STEPHEN JOHNSON (315 Infantry): They're more cooperative now. They're actually out there watching the projects themselves, making sure it's done right. They've hired their own engineers. They don't interrupt the projects too much. So right now, it's doing OK.

WESTERVELT: But locals complain about the slow pace of change, about Iraqi cronyism, corruption and unfinished projects. And on the other big issue, security, the unofficial collaboration between US and Sadr supporters is even more shaky. In theory, Sadr's Mahdi militiamen turned in their weapons; in practice, American forces here know that many of these fanatical fighters kept their firepower. But US soldiers so far have taken a kind of don't ask, don't tell attitude toward the subject.

Captain MATTHEW MORGAN (US Army): It's not as though we can go out and just take somebody in if they're not doing something wrong. So, I mean, if they're doing the right thing now and are trying to lean in the right direction, you know, I mean, we let them do what they need to do.

WESTERVELT: Captain Matthew Morgan even credits Sadr followers for keeping this area secure. Indeed, Sadr City has been largely free of the devastating car bombings that have wracked other Baghdad neighborhoods for months. And only one US soldier has been killed here since the 3rd Infantry arrived in January. Morgan says Sadr's followers have a pretty good neighborhood watch program, monitoring everyone who enters.

Capt. MORGAN: I firmly believe that Sadr City is pretty safe from outsiders because of them. We augment--we do our security patrols, but they do quite a bit as well.

WESTERVELT: But big unanswered questions linger. Recently, bodies of young men slain execution-style by unknown assailants turned up in a Sadr City dump. Shiites settling scores with Sunnis, ad hoc justice--no one is really sure. An unknown group, some say people nominally allied with Sadr, has set up so-called punishment committees. These are shadowy underground Islamic courts allegedly handing down Sharia or religious justice. Army Sergeant Dale Austin.

Sergeant DALE AUSTIN (US Army): We found one mass grave with 12 bodies. Some of them looked like they'd been tortured. Some of them looked like they was just pulled out there and shot on sight and buried. We went out several times and found just single bodies. I don't know if it was, you know, punishment committee, that these guys did something wrong. A lot of it--the stories we're getting is these guys are guilty. Either they're Sunni, they're bad, they did prostitution, crimes against Islam. So a lot of the people actually, you know, they take it as that's just a natural occurrence. That's just the way it is, you know. They were bad to begin with if they're dead.

WESTERVELT: The killings renewed fears of sectarian violence. The Muslim Scholars Association, a Sunni group with links to parts of the insurgency, claim the dead were all Sunni farmers from Madain, a town shaken by accusations of tit-for-tat sectarian kidnappings. The random corpses, angry posters and tight-lipped locals have all added to the pressures simmering just below the surface here. Captain Morgan says if this desperately poor area remains peaceful for the remainder of the division's tour here, it will mark a significant turn for Iraq. But he also knows it could easily go the other way.

Capt. MORGAN: All somebody has to do is to make one phone call in that city from the Sadr bureau of the Mahdi militia, and those guys--you know, they'd probably be ready to fight.

WESTERVELT: As Sadr himself warned in a fiery anti-occupation speech in early May, his first Friday sermon in months, quote, "We dropped our weapons, but our hands are still on the trigger." To head off yet another fight, the American brigade commander in charge of eastern Baghdad is trying to establish a more workable peace with Sadr and his lieutenants. Army Colonel Joseph Desalvo says so far, the discussions are limited, but it's a start.

Colonel JOSEPH DESALVO (US Army): So what I'm working very hard on is getting a dialogue with the Sadr City Sadr bureau hierarchy. I've started doing that. It's been very slow go, but any dialogue's better than no dialogue. So far, they appear to be, I'll say, fairly committed to the political route. They know the militant route is a lose-lose situation for them.

WESTERVELT: Complicating any fledgling dialogue is continued skepticism that Sadr has full control over the angry foot soldiers in his movement. As one American soldier said of the tense peace in Sadr City, `I could get back in the tank, but I don't like tanks. I'd just as soon drive around here in the Humvee and hand out chickens.' Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Baghdad.

INSKEEP: You can find pictures and links to our Baghdad coverage at npr.org.

You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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