LIANE HANSEN, host:
In Iraq, after weeks of sometimes fierce combat in Sadr City, American and Iraqi soldiers are starting to rebuild the southern sector of the Shiite slum. The goal is to make the southern area a model for the rest of Sadr City. U.S. commanders are working to jumpstart Iraqi civilian government involvement, but so far it's mostly been an American-led effort.
From Baghdad, NPR's Eric Westervelt reports.
ERIC WESTERVELT: Iraqi tanks and concrete blast walls guard this part of the frontline of southern Sadr City along al Quds Street, what the Americans call Route Gold.
The temperature soars well over 100. In a hallway of a makeshift combat outpost of bullet-riddled buildings, Iraqi and American soldiers in full battle gear perked up in the heat: Major General Jeffery Hammond, commander of Baghdad forces, is awarding five Americans the Bronze Star medal for valor.
Major General JEFFREY HAMMOND (U.S. Army): Okay. My intention orders: the Bronze Star is presented to the following men for distinguishing themselves in direct combat under fire. These men led by example. They fought right alongside your great men, the Iraqi soldier.
WESTERVELT: Fighting is not over in Sadr City. While the general pins the medals on the soldiers, an armored vehicle is positioned to block potential sniper fire into the hallway. But the fighting here has calmed down enough, for now, that Americans are aggressively turning their attention to rebuilding the southern section of Sadr City, what the Iraqis call Jameela.
Lieutenant Colonel FRANK CURTIS (U.S. Army; Commander, 432 Civil Affairs Battalion): What the people are telling us is that they're sick of the fighting. They're tired of the fighting. They want to go back to a normal life. They're asking the coalition forces to help them get just a normal life.
WESTERVELT: Lieutenant Colonel Frank Curtis commands the 432nd Civil Affairs Battalion. His unit is spearheading reconstruction efforts here. He's just opened an office where locals can file compensation claims. So far, more 30 Iraqis have filed. Eight claims have been paid out so far for property damage.
Jameela is home to Baghdad's largest wholesale vegetable market — part of the Jameela sook(ph) was burned and badly damaged during the recent fighting. The U.S. is helping to get this key economic engine back up. New lights are being installed on the main roadway next to the market.
Lt. Col. CURTIS: Once these lights go on, then we kick it out of the next neighborhood. And we just continue to work our neighborhood by neighborhood.
WESTERVELT: Across Iraq, American-funded local security groups, mainly formed in Sunni areas, have proved key to taming the insurgency. A U.S. effort's now underway here to hire 270 locals for a Shiite Sons of Iraq. General Hammond is working with local Sheiks to try to move the process into high gear.
Maj. Gen. HAMMOND: If these guys do - police this thing up a little bit for us, and then you bring the sheikhs onboard to assist you in the hiring process, you just got a greater insurance that you're going to get it right.
WESTERVELT: The Americans recently offered a free medical clinic, and Iraqi soldiers have been handing out American humanitarian assistance packages -clothing, shoes and other goods. But so far, this is largely a U.S.-led and American-funded effort. General Hammond asked Lieutenant Colonel Curtis if the government of Iraq has yet to show up.
Maj. Gen. HAMMOND: They have vision there, the money there, we're meeting a lot of people. But unless you've seen something today…
Lt. Col. CURTIS: I have not seen anything today.
WESTERVELT: The U.S. military has funded a temporary program to pick up trash, but basic services - sewage, trash and electricity - remain shoddy. And there are fears that U.S.-spearheaded efforts to fix things could end up weakening the Iraqi government in the eyes of locals.
A U.S. team is trying reaching out to the municipal and neighborhood governments and the mayor of Baghdad, but so far, Lieutenant Colonel Dennis Kennedy says, it's been a struggle.
Lieutenant Colonel DENNIS KENNEDY (U.S. Army): No, not here yet. They told us that the security situation warrants that they don't feel comfortable coming to work. We continue to engage them. We do talk to them on the phone. And we are encouraging them to come and meet with us.
WESTERVELT: Throughout the war in Iraq, it's often required a senior commander to deliver a message face-to-face. General Hammond makes a surprise visit to an Iraqi army base and talks to Major General Muntheer, the commander of the Iraqi Army's 11th Division.
Maj. Gen. HAMMOND: We need to call the mayor and have him meet us here tomorrow so he can demonstrate leadership right here.
WESTERVELT: We'll call the mayor, yes, the Iraqi general tells his American counterpart. General Hammond then taps his hand gently on the knee of Major General Muntheer to emphasize his point.
Mr. HAMMOND: He needs to know that we will be here at 9 o'clock and be very disappointed if he can't be here at 9 o'clock. The prime minister needs this to happen.
Major General MUNTHEER (Iraqi Army): (Foreign language spoken)
WESTERVELT: While the U.S. reconstruction effort for this southern section of Sadr City is slowing taking off, the strategy leaves out a massive section of the Shiite slum. The northern area — the biggest piece of Sadr City — is still firmly in the hands of Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia.
Sadr has made efforts to restore the chronically shoddy services there, central to his movement's growth and power in Baghdad. U.S. commanders say any rebuilding effort northward will proceed only as security conditions allow. As one commander put it: I'm a realist. We need to control what we can control.
Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Baghdad.
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