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Fears of Terrorist Threat, Iranian Influence Rising in Southern Iraq

Southern Iraq, which suffered a great deal under Saddam Hussein and rejoiced at his fall two years ago, has been relatively peaceful. This is in contrast to Baghdad and central parts of Iraq which are dominated by Sunni Arabs, who are said to form the backbone of the insurgency that has killed an estimated 30,000 people. Nevertheless, recent incidents have raised fears that religious extremists and terrorists may be on the rise in the south.

Basra has been much calmer than some other parts of Iraq, perhaps because it is predominantly Shiite, whose leaders hold a majority in the national and local governments. But recent incidents have raised anxieties.

A car bombing on October 31, blamed on Islamic extremists, killed 45 people. A street vendor in central Basra, Selwan Tariq, calls the attack inexcusable.

"What do you call it when they attack innocent people? It's barbarian, it's unjustified," he said.

In September, a British convoy was attacked after an incident involving two undercover British soldiers. The soldiers had been detained by Iraqi police but were freed by force by British troops, which angered the local population.

Thirty two-year-old Hussam Ali, a computer engineer, calls Basra's security situation unstable.

"It's good compared to Baghdad and a lot of cities, but there are a lot of kidnappings and some unacceptable militia activities," said Hussam Ali.

The local governor says the army and police have been infiltrated by militias loyal to political parties. Their loyalty to the government is uncertain.

Nasir Ali, an unemployed civil servant, does not act surprised over the militias.

"Regarding the militias, it is due to the political vacuum in Basra," he said. "The central government rules in Baghdad. Basra is far from Baghdad. That means they haven't any control over Basra."

The Vice President of the Provincial Assembly, Aqeel Talib, says the militias do not pose a threat.

"We have militias but they are not in the streets," he explained. "We want the police and national army to serve the interest of the country alone, not the interest of their parties."

But the commander of the British forces in Basra, Lt. Colonel James Hopkinson, says the militias are a problem.

"In a tribal, religious, politically polarized, factionalized city such as Basra, it's inevitable that the individuals who are from the militias, or from the religious parties or from the tribes, are going to be present in the police service," he said.

But he adds that many security officers are professional and keen to uphold the law. Colonel Hopkinson says Iraqi forces in the south gradually are taking over security operations and one day the British will leave, though he cannot say when.

But a spokesman for the Iraqi army, Captain Akram al-Abassi, says before that can happen, the Iraqi forces must be better equipped.

"We need more weapons," he said. "We need aircraft. We need helicopters. We need tanks to protect our country, to do our job well."

But on the breezy Corniche that lines the Shaat al-Arab River, Muafaq Shakir, who was setting up his water pipe business as people relaxed during the recent holiday of Eid al-Fitr, said life is improving in Iraq's second largest city.

"The security situation is good now," he said. "There are many policemen, many police convoys night and day."

He says that what most Iraqis here want now are better living conditions: clean water, reliable electricity, reconstruction and jobs. And they want more revenues from their region's vast oil fields, which still go primarily to the central government in Baghdad.