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For weeks, US and Iraqi forces have battled Shiite fighters loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr in the dense and poor neighborhood that bears his father's name. Now a cease-fire aimed at ending that violence in Sadr City has failed. NPR's Ivan Watson visited the besieged neighborhood.

IVAN WATSON: Hours after the cease-fire agreement was signed, an explosion rumbled across Sadr City, and a gun battle broke out several blocks away. Several bullet rounds zipped overhead as a bruised and bloody man, who appeared to be a wounded fighter, limped into the office of Muqtada al-Sadr's movement in Sadr City.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

WATSON: The men sitting inside were unarmed, but were clearly militia fighters.

Unidentified Group: (Foreign language spoken)

WATSON: Their leader, a bearded man named Abu Mustafah(ph) claimed his gunmen had destroyed some 150 American tanks and Humvees over the last month.

Mr. ABU MUSTAFAH (Militia Leader, Sadr City): (Foreign language spoken)

WATSON: I don't trust this cease-fire agreement with the Iraqi government, the commander said, adding they have violated many truces before.

On another side of the embattled neighborhood, some residents, like this engineer who refused to give his name, criticized the Iraqi government, saying it was calling off its campaign to disarm Sadr's militia far too soon.

You think they could keep fighting? Destroy the militias?

Unidentified Man #1: Yes. I hate militias. They kill people without any reason.

WATSON: The engineer was speaking as he walked through the heavily guarded checkpoint that has become one of the only gateways connecting Sadr City's two million residents to the rest of Baghdad.

Cars are banned from driving through here, so everyday, tens of thousands of Sadr City residents make a procession through here on foot. U.S. and Iraqi government forces have encircled the neighborhood with concrete walls, tanks and barbed wire, prompting Iraqis to nickname this area Gaza.

The slowdown in the fighting has allowed 19-year-old Huda Kadim Ali(ph) and her two girlfriends to emerge from the war zone for the first time in months, clutching bright pink notebooks. Huda now hopes to resume her freshman year in college.

Ms. HUDA KADIM ALI (Resident, Sadr City): (Through translator) I haven't gone to the university for two months because of the insurgents and the bad situation. Because today we had an exam we had to go on foot.

WATSON: The long battle here has taken a terrible toll on these people.

Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)

WATSON: This grieving woman, dressed in long black robes, sobbed as she described how her 15-year-old son Ali was killed by a sniper while shopping for bread.

(Soundbite of car honking)

WATSON: Inside Sadr City, a taxi driver named Waleed Sa Mohammed(ph) gave visitors a surreal guided tour of the sprawling slum.

Driving through the maze of the streets here in the heart of Sadr City, our taxi driver is pointing out buried roadside bombs, buried in the asphalt. On one street, you'll see a wedding convoy driving past, children playing in the streets, and at the next street corner, there'll be twisted rubble and bombed out cars and Iraqi and American armored vehicles hunkered down and defending themselves periodically against militia attacks.

Before dropping off his passengers, the taxi driver, who is missing four fingers on his right hand, admits that he, too, is one of Sadr's fighters.

Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)

WATSON: We can survive the siege for a long time, he swears. Adding, if Muqtada al-Sadr gives us the order, then we'll go and one-by-one pull the American soldiers from their tanks.

Ivan Watson, NPR News, Baghdad.

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