Eight months after the fall of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, British-controlled southern Iraq is enjoying a relative peace that still eludes the violence-stricken central and northern parts of the country. VOA Correspondent Alisha Ryu visited the city of Basra and reports it provides a glimpse of what a more-stable Iraq could be like.
It is late afternoon and British Army Sergeant Mark Harrhy and his 10-man security team struggle to pick their way through a crowded street in Basra's main outdoor market district.
In contrast to American forces deployed north of here who are required to wear heavy Kevlar helmets at all times, the soldiers on this foot patrol wear soft beret caps. Walking through the crowd, they smile and acknowledge polite waves and cheers from merchants and shoppers.
Sergeant Harrhy agrees this densely-packed area would be an ideal place for attackers to carry out deadly ambushes. But the 12-year Army veteran says the soft berets they wear appear to have helped convince most of the locals that the British are in Basra to restore security, not to fight a war. "At nights, we go back to helmets," said the soldier. "Nights, we're moving around, dark alleys everywhere. There's more chance of something happening. But the people down here have never given us cause to require helmets in the daytime."
The British-led multinational occupation of southern Iraq has not been without violence or fatalities. Nearly 20 British soldiers have been killed by hostile file since major combat was declared over on May 1.
Other coalition members have also been targets of attacks. Last month, a suicide car bombing killed more than a dozen Italian troops stationed in the southern city of Nasariyah. And recently, the British military says there has been an increase in the number of attempted roadside bombings.
But compared to violence-stricken Baghdad and the predominantly pro-Saddam Sunni Muslim areas to the west and north of the capital under U.S. control, southern Iraq has been relatively calm.
Officials here attribute that to the fact that southern Iraq is home to a large population of Shi'ite Muslims, who were severely persecuted by Saddam Hussein and his regime, which was dominated by Sunni Muslims.
British Army spokesman Major Charles Mayo says the vast majority of Shiites here continue to regard coalition forces as liberators, not occupiers. He said that has allowed some 10,000 British troops to focus their attention on much-needed reconstruction efforts.
"The population down here don't want to have what they had before," said Major Mayo. "They have a booming economy. There are businesses starting up all over the place. They can see where this is going and they ain't going back."
That sentiment can be readily seen in the bustling streets of Basra, Iraq's second largest city.
Newly-built hotels have sprung up all over town, filled with merchants from neighboring Kuwait, Jordan and other Arab countries, eager to cash in on new business and trade opportunities. The deep-water port of Umm Qasr, south of Basra, hums with activity as ships from Dubai and Kuwait unload merchandise destined for Iraqi markets.
But the sudden economic revival in southern Iraq has not been without a host of related problems. Basra's residents are increasingly complaining about a rise in theft, kidnappings and other crimes. The Iraqi police say they are overwhelmed with cases.
British troops, meanwhile, are kept busy fighting organized crime and smugglers attempting to sneak goods out of the country, including oil, precious metals and livestock. Soldiers routinely stop suspicious convoys traveling on the highway. On this day, an Iraqi truck driver, hauling diesel oil, is questioned about his load. "Are you part of a convoy? Are they with you?" asks a soldier. "We're just going to check them and you can go on your way."
In central Basra, at the criminal courts building, Iraqi prosecutor Adnan Al-Jassim waits to present his case against a man accused of kidnapping a businessman for ransom.
Mr. Al-Jassim says although Basra is not suffering the kind of violence that is ravaging Baghdad and elsewhere in the north, many people here also do not feel there is adequate security.
"We are looking for democracy, looking for freedom, looking for a good life," said Mr. Al-Jassim. "For that reason, we are happy. But not happy because the situation is not stable yet."
British officials acknowledge there is still more work to be done in southern Iraq. But aided by a population that despised the former regime, the southern British zone has reached a level of stability that that remains a distant goal in the north.