Page last updated at 20:31 GMT, Sunday, 14 September 2008 21:31 UK

Sadr City slowly comes back to life

By Mike Sergeant
BBC News, Sadr City, Baghdad

Iraqi children enjoy the Mithaq Pool in Sadr City
Local boys have been enjoying the newly refurbished Mithaq Pool in Sadr City

The streets of Sadr City are slowly coming back to life.

Within minutes of getting out of a heavily armoured vehicle, we are surrounded by laughing children.

Some are playing table football on the pavement. Others are trying to jump into every shot we film for our television report.

A public swimming pool has just re-opened - the first in this neighbourhood of the Iraqi capital. It is for boys only, but at least they get the chance to cool off.

Screaming with delight, they dive, jump and splash into the water. This is a side of Baghdad you rarely get to see.

Business grants

Violence has left its scars all over Sadr City. On the main streets, there are bullet holes and burnt-out buildings everywhere.

Security has, though, improved dramatically in recent months.

Sgt Derryl Haidek
There are a lot of people who don't like us, but as far as the enemy goes, they have mostly moved on
Sgt Derryl Haidek

Earlier this year, Iraqi and US forces took part in a huge offensive. The militias melted away.

The Shia cleric Moqtada Sadr - who along with his Mehdi Army was one of the biggest thorns in the US military's side - called a ceasefire.

Since then, the streets have been much less dangerous for US soldiers. But anti-American feelings are still strong.

"There are a lot of people who don't like us," says US army Sgt Derryl Haidek. "But as far as the enemy goes, they have mostly moved on."

His men spend most of their days handing out business grants rather than battling insurgents - a sign of progress.

Shopkeepers can be given up to $2,500 (1,390) for repairs or improvements. It is one way to ensure a less hostile reception.

Lingering fear

The residents of Sadr City are angry about the dire state of public services - the lack of electricity and clean water are the perennial complaints. But people feel much safer now.

A supporter of Moqtada Sadr holds up a poster of him
Moqtada Sadr has not said whether his Mehdi Army will eventually disarm

"The number of killings and kidnappings has dropped," says Atheer Jabbar, one shopkeeper. "There are no threats to us anymore".

US commanders say the Mehdi Army has been pushed out of Sadr City. But there is a lingering fear the militias are simply hiding and waiting to fight another day.

I asked Qusay Abd al-Wahhab, a member of the Sadrist block in the Council of Representatives, whether Mr Sadr had been defeated.

"No, not defeated. He has simply suspended his operations," he said.

Mr Abd al-Wahhab said the insurgency could quickly resume if his leader gave the order.

The real strength of Mr Sadr's supporters as a military force is one of the big unknowns in Iraq today.

The Mehdi Army seems diminished. Mr Sadr himself spends most of his time in Iran, but he still has huge political and religious influence in parts of the country.

The fighting could resume if US troops withdraw rapidly from places like Sadr City, or if the US announces an intention to stay for many years.

Boys play football near a security barrier in Sadr City
US troops have built a barrier in Sadr City to reduce sectarian violence

Whilst highly sensitive negotiations on the future of coalition forces continue in Baghdad, troops on the ground are trying to hold on to the recent gains in security. But they have come at a price.

US troops have built a barrier which cuts Sadr City in half.

The residents of this poor, battered enclave now find themselves almost entirely surrounded by concrete walls.

Life is far from normal here - even if people are starting to feel a little more hopeful.

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