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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It seems like a nightmare in Ivory Coast, but in one corner of Iraq a nightmare may be ending. The southern city of Basra is enjoying a kind of comeback. Iraqis in that oil-rich southern city are enjoying something close to a normal life. They have lived through three separate wars, as NPR's Kelly McEvers tells us.

KELLY MCEVERS: One of the most striking things about Basra, especially for people coming from Baghdad, is how much it is not like Baghdad. Fewer blast walls, fewer checkpoints. Local journalist Mahmoud al Bachary shows us around.

Mr. MAHMOUD AL BACHARY (Journalist): This street is called Night Street.

MCEVERS: Night Street?

Mr. BACHARY: Night Street. Yeah.

MCEVERS: So you don't have a curfew here?

Mr. BACHARY: No, there's no curfew.

MCEVERS: Butchers, fruit stalls, record stores, places selling peanuts, men's clothing, shoe shops.

There's even a circus in town.

CDs...

And a newly renovated five-star hotel.

Sweets. Towers of sweets.

Situated on a waterway that spills out into the Persian Gulf, this port city, for centuries, was a thriving commercial and cultural hub. But the last few decades have not been kind. First, Basra was the center of much fighting in the Iran-Iraq war.

I'm standing in a little gazebo on the Shatt al-Arab. It's the main waterway down here into the Gulf. And it used to be along here there were these imposing statues pointing fingers toward Iran, angrily, to represent the Iran-Iraq war.

(Soundbite of music)

MCEVERS: Now those statues are gone. In their place is a huge outdoor movie screen dedicated to victims of the next war, in 1991, when Iraq invaded Kuwait and the U.S. bombed Iraq.

(Soundbite of a movie)

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: The screen shows photos of Shiite martyrs who, after that war, rose up against Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. Many thought they'd have the backing of the U.S., but instead they were rounded up, imprisoned, tortured and killed. The screen also shows documentary-style films about the resilience of Basra's people after what they call the Third Gulf War, when the U.S. invaded in 2003.

(Soundbite of conversations)

MCEVERS: These men say the big screen helps them understand how far they've come, especially given the sectarian violence that overtook Basra after the U.S. invasion.

Mr. AHMED QASAR: (Through Translator) If, for example we are in 2006, it's impossible to stand with you. That time, no one in the street.

MCEVERS: And now, says Ahmed Qasar...

Mr. QASAR: (Through Translator) We can go inside and outside. We are free now.

MCEVERS: All three guys graduated from top universities, but for years were unemployed, until recently. Now they work at the state-run Southern Oil Company as engineers. Iraq is thought to have the world's second-largest oil reserves, after Saudi Arabia. The bulk of that oil is here in the Basra region.

Aside from jobs, though, any benefit from recently signed contracts with foreign companies to develop Basra's oil fields has yet to trickle down to average people, says Abdul Amir Saeed Jabar Batat, who owns a floating restaurant on the Shatt al-Arab.

The restaurant is called What Basra Deserves. It opened in 2008, once the Iraqi army retook control of Basra from sectarian militias. Batat says the government is actually doing very little to develop the place. This summer, thousands of people took to the street to protest electricity shortages.

Batat says it's Basra's big families - who for generations have worked as merchants - who are behind the Basra boom.

Mr. ABDUL AMIR SAEED JABAR BATAT (Owner, What Basra Deserves Restaurant): (Through Translator) Iraqi merchant has a big capital. But since it was dangerous to risk for your money at that time, so most of the merchants put -hide their money. But now because the city is open, they began to invest their money.

MCEVERS: All this success means some Basrawis are beginning to see themselves as separate from the more chaotic and less prosperous Baghdad. Officials here look at the semi-autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq and say: Why can't we do the same? Why can't we keep more of our oil revenue, and have more of a say in who gets the oil contracts?

(Soundbite of radio broadcast)

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: It's issues like these that dominate a new call-in show on Al Rasheed Radio in Basra. The station director says it won't be easy for Basra and Baghdad to resolve their differences, but at least now people feel comfortable enough to talk about it.

(Soundbite of radio broadcast)

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: Kelly McEvers, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News.

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