ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
In Iraq today, a senior aide to anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr was shot dead by an unidentified gunman. That, in the holy city of Najaf, south of Baghdad. Sporadic clashes also continue between Sadr's militia and U.S.-backed Iraqi forces in Basra and in the militia's Baghdad stronghold of Sadr City.
NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro was in Sadr City today, and she has the story of two men - one, a militia leader, and the other, his childhood friend who's now an Iraqi policeman.
LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: Abu Haider comes into the room covered in sweat. His long white distasha is streaked with dirt. He says he's been working. When pressed, he admits he's been laying a roadside bomb targeting the U.S. military.
Mr. ABU HAIDER (Senior Sadrist Leader, Mahdi Army): (Through translator) We fight them when they enter our sector. We have heavy machine guns, we have rocket-propelled grenades, and the roadside bombs. We used the alleyways to run around them.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Abu Haider leads 60 Shiite militiamen in this neighborhood of Sadr City. A short man with dark skin and watchful eyes, Abu Haider grew up here and knows everyone in the area. The house he's just burst into belongs to one of his oldest friends Hassan, who just happens to be a member of the national police.
(Soundbite of people talking)
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Abu Haider and Hassan argue over how long they've known each other. Thirty-five years is the final verdict. A baker by trade, Abu Haider joined Moqtada al-Sadr's militia, known as the Mahdi Army, around the same time as Hassan, who doesn't want his last name used, joined the police.
The men's relationship gives a rare insight into how the Mahdi Army controls Sadr City and how difficult it will be for the U.S. and Iraqi forces to disentangle the good guys from the bad ones.
Hassan, the policeman, acknowledges that he has aided the Mahdi Army.
HASSAN: (Through translator) I help them. I give them weapons, ammunition and uniforms.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: But all is not as it seems. Privately, he says, he hates Moqtada al-Sadr's militia because they seem to care more about fighting than the people here.
HASSAN: (Through translator) A Mahdi Army commander wanted to set a roadside bomb at the end of our street. An old man asked them to move it because it was right next to his house; they refused.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: In this city within a city, home to two and a half million people, Hassan is supposed to be the law. Instead the real law is the Mahdi Army; and a brutal one at that.
HASSAN: (Through translator) They took over Sadr City by force. They have their own court system. They are in charge of propane and kerosene distribution. They are in charge of cleaning the city streets, and the income from these public works contracts goes to buy ammunition and bombs.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Hassan says Sadr City policemen who were sent to Basra during the most recent bout of fighting there were arrested and interrogated by the Mahdi Army upon their return to Baghdad. One only has to look outside the door to see where the balance of power lies - militia members stand in small clusters at almost every street corner.
Hassan said he understands why these young men fight: They have nothing and no hope. Sadr's militia gives them a purpose. Mahdi Army commander Abu Haider agrees. He says the hard life here is what made him fight and kill.
Mr. HAIDER: (Through translator) We've learned. Poverty made us learn.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: All of its fighters are like him, he says.
Mr. HAIDER: (Through translator) They are barbers, tailors, vegetable sellers and cell phone shop assistants.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Abu Haider said the people of Sadr City make up the Mahdi Army here. That's where its power comes from and it's easy to join.
Mr. HAIDER: (Through translator) The applicant should be recommended by two or three militiamen, and they should know him well. He should be good and brave but no problems. And when Moqtada al-Sadr orders it, they should leave their jobs and go to fight.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Militia commander Abu Haider says they're financed by wealthy Sadr City businessmen. We are well armed and supplied, he says, but he emphatically denies that weapons or training come from Iran.
What they are waiting for now, says Abu Haider, is an end to the ceasefire Sadr ordered last August. Abu Haider said he's willing to die if Moqtada al-Sadr decrees it.
Mr. HAIDER: (Through translator) Only around 25 percent of the Mahdi Army is fighting here now. But if the ceasefire is lifted, you will see Iraq burn.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Policeman Hassan listens to him intently. He knows that if full-scale war comes to Sadr City, he will have to choose, finally, whose side he's on, not even his friendship with Abu Haider will save him.
MR. HASSAN: (Through translator) I will join the Mahdi Army. Do you know why? Because they will kill everybody who works for the government when that day comes, because it will be their last fight.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: They will have nothing to lose and neither will I, he says.
Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Baghdad.