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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Americans have come to know Sadr City as one of Baghdad's most notorious neighborhoods. Throughout the war, it's been dominated by a radical Muslim cleric whose armed followers were determined to drive out U.S. forces.

In recent months, the black-clad gunmen have vanished, replaced by Iraqi soldiers and the occasional U.S. patrol. The resulting calm has breathed new life into this slum. As NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson discovered on a recent visit to Sadr City, residents are taking back their neighborhood. Here's her reporter's notebook.

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SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: A dozen Iraqi boys cram around this table soccer game that is under way along al Falah Street in Sadr City. They cheer on teenager Salah Abbas as he sends the ball flying toward his opponent's goal.

For the 16-year-old Abbas, this isn't just about having fun. It's about making money. And he's been making quite a lot of it since fighting stopped on this street a few months back.

Mr. SALAH ABBAS: (unintelligible). Got nothing to show.

NELSON: He tells me that with his family's help, he bought his first table in June and set it up on the side of the street. He charged kids who wanted to play the equivalent of $.40 per game. Within two weeks, the teen says he earned enough money to buy two more tables.

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NELSON: Nowadays, the scores of boys who flock to his open-air arcade earn him a cool $25 per day. That's a hefty wage by Iraqi standards. He calls it a blessing from God. It's a view of life that's echoed by just about everyone here inside what is known as Sadr City's Golden Block.

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: By early evening, as the searing temperatures ease, the sidewalks are packed with people. Some of them are venturing out this summer for the first time in years. They shop or hawk goods, dine on falafel sandwiches or stop to chat with neighbors over tobacco they smoke through gurgling water pipes.

The economic and social boom in Sadr City is unlike anything I've seen since I started coming here five years ago, and I find no trace of the black-clad militia who used to lob mortars at American targets from these same sidewalks.

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: Instead, I find people like Mohammad Hadi Wadji, who sells fruit here at the Emraidi market. He says he used to dodge gunfire behind boxes piled up at his fruit stand. Now he's able to stand out front, haggling with customers, as he does here.

American officials in Iraq credit the recently ended U.S. troop surge for the transformation in Baghdad neighborhoods like Sadr City.

Unidentified Man #3: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: But that's not how the Sadr City residents I interviewed see it. Most, like the fruit vendor speaking here, credit Muqtada al-Sadr for the quiet in their impoverished neighborhood.

He's the radical Shiite cleric whose father is the namesake for Sadr City. The younger Sadr also heads the Mahdi Army militiamen the Americans claim to have driven back.

Many here believe it was Sadr's call for a cease-fire that led the gunmen to disappear, and they say they'll happily welcome them back, especially if it's to fight the Americans.

Unidentified Man #4: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Group: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: At a Friday rally on this day outside Sadr's office, thousands of men echo the prayer leader's chants of no to America and yes to liberation. Later, they set fire to a plastic tarp covered in American flags. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Sadr City.

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MONTAGNE: See the livelier Sadr City and Soraya's audio slide show at our Web site: npr.org.

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