U.S.-Backed Offensive Weakens Basra Militias

A government offensive in the southern Iraq city of Basra has met with success. Initially, U.S.-led Iraqi forces met with stiff resistance from Shiite militias. But after two months, Basra's streets are clear. NPR's Steve Inskeep talks to NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

The last time the world paid close attention to southern Iraq it was a mess. Militia groups were in control of the southern city of Basra; Iraq's army and police tried to take control and they failed, leading to a ceasefire. That was then. Things have changed.

NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro is in Basra now. Lourdes, where are you?

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'm in an area called Haiyaniya(ph), and this is, if you will, the Sadr City of Basra. This is an area where the Mahdi Army was exceedingly strong, it was an area controlled by the militias. It was an area where there was a great deal of fighting.

And I've been talking to families here, I've been traveling around, and it is now, I can say, firmly under the control of the Iraqi army and police. There are checkpoints here, everything's blocked, and they are all over Basra. Basra is surprisingly calm.

I came down here expecting things to still be quite tense and in fact the opposite has been the case. And what we see here now is a city that is quite calm.

INSKEEP: Well, how did Iraq's security forces defeat these militia groups or at least push them aside, which they so failed to do a couple months ago?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's right. I was talking yesterday to the new head of the Iraqi army, and he admitted that the beginning of this operation started very inefficiently. There were defections, there were people who refused to fight, the Iraqi army did not do well.

But that changed after the ceasefire went into place. And in that lull, the Iraqi army took over areas that were before no-go areas, where they faced a lot of resistance. And they basically walked into them not really facing a great deal of trouble.

People here seem to be exceedingly happy about that. I mean, you have to remember that Basra was a place where Mahdi Army members were enforcing their own strict version of Islamic law, where women (unintelligible) covered; they were punished or killed if they were wearing makeup.

And now there was the graduation ceremony at the university yesterday and what we saw was women wearing lots of makeup and saying that they were very pleased about the changes.

There is an underlying sense of insecurity here still. They are worried that these militia members have simply disappeared into the population, and people don't truly don't have a strong sense of security, but there is a sense here that things are changing for the better in Basra.

INSKEEP: Well, I want to follow-up on that because you did say at one point militia members laid down their arms. Did they in fact put the arms under the bed and they've still go them somewhere? They didn't disarm, did they?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Exactly, and they laid down their arms, meaning they didn't pick them up to fight against the army, but there is no sense that they really handed in any weapons, certainly. I mean, what the Iraqi army will tell you is that they have arrested about 600 wanted people, and of course many of those were Mahdi Army militia members.

But they are trying to make it very clear that they've also gone after other militias here. There is a sense that a lot of these people have been arrested but some of these people have gone to Iran, the Iraqi army says. Some of these people have gone to the Arab marshes, which is a kind of vast area which is very difficult to penetrate. And some of these people are still in Basra, possibly waiting to fight another day.

INSKEEP: How are people on the streets there responding to meeting an American reporter, which must be a less common sight in Basra than in Baghdad?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I have to say I've had absolutely mixed reactions. On the one hand, they see it as a positive sign. They haven't seen a foreigner reporting on the streets in quite some time.

I was interviewing some Iraqi soldiers and then later I went to go meet a family in a totally different part of town. And they said, oh, are you the foreign reporter who was interviewing Iraqi soldiers in this other part of town? We've heard about you, people are talking about you. Clearly it's a sight that people weren't expecting to see.

INSKEEP: But you said mixed. People are not always happy to see you?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, people are still very frightened. I have tried to speak to certain people and they just said please don't use my name, it's not safe yet, I don't want people to know that I'm talking to a foreign reporter, we don't know where these people are.

And you have to sort of cajole people because they still think it's really isn't safe yet to come out and talk about a lot of the experiences that they've been having over the past few years.

INSKEEP: NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro is in Basra, Iraq, where much, though not everything, has changed in the last couple of months. Thanks very much.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Thanks so much.

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