GUY RAZ, host.

To Iraq now, where the U.S. military says, violence continues to decline. Part of the reason why, is the success of recent Iraqi Army operations in Baghdad and Basra. It's been two months since Iraq security forces stormed that city. Before the offensive there, competing Shiite militias were in control and the southern city was rife with assassinations and kidnappings. Now, there are 40,000 Iraqi soldiers and police in Basra.

NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro has this report on the improving security situation in Basra and what it means.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: There is a wild mood in parts of Basra these days. On the river front promenade, known as the Cornish(ph), a group of young men dance around and sing. They are very, very drunk.

(Soundbite of music)

Reveler Harem Abbas(ph) says they are celebrating their new found freedom.

Mr. REVELER HAREM ABBAS: (Through translator) The militias were even more severe than Saddam's regime. We were very restricted. We all looked over our shoulders, when we went out, for fear we would be caught and crammed into the trunk of a car. Now, people can go out freely. Look how many people there are on the street.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Indeed, the Cornish is crowded this night with mostly men sitting in outdoor tea houses, smoking water pipes, watching the Shatt Al Arab River flow by. Alcohol was banned by the militias on pain of death. On this day, many of the younger males are obviously intoxicated. Abdulah al Abadi(ph) is a 55-year-old merchant. He says Basra has had an immense weight lifted off it.

Mr. ABDULAH AL ABADI: (Through translator) We're pleased and so are all the people of Basra. People feel happy and relieved. You can't keep stressing people. Basra now is very good. Thank God.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That peace though is guarded by men with guns. Iraqi police and Iraqi soldiers patrol the streets. There are check points everywhere. Basra is now a heavily militarized city under martial law. On the Cornish, a dozen soldiers cock their weapons before heading out on patrol.

Basra is the richest prize in Iraq, the region account for 90 percent of the country's oil revenue. The area is home to Iraq's only deep water seaport about 35 miles south of the city. In the chaos that followed the U.S.-led invasion, political parties backed by their armed militias exploited the security vacuum in Basra. British forces that were supposed to be in control of the city did little to stop them.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's initial decision to takeover the city two months ago had dramatic repercussions here. Residents say they had no chance to stock up on supplies or evacuate before the Army offensive, leading to casualties that could have been avoided.

Ahkmehd Hashem(ph) is a university lecturer.

Mr. AHKMEHD HASHEM (Lecturer): (Through translator) The army came inside the city without prior notice. People were not ready or prepared. There was no food or medical supplies. No water. We saw many people get killed by mistake. I consider this period the most difficult we've faced here in Basra.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Iraqi Army officers interviewed by NPR acknowledge that early chaos could have been avoided. Soldiers in Basra told NPR they were given only two hours prior notice of the operation, and the battle plan they say, was confusing and vague. Not surprisingly, the first week of battle against the militias went very badly for them.

(Soundbite of video clip of battle)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In video shown to NPR by an Iraqi soldier, the Iraqi Army is seen firing wildly at civilian homes and shops in one of the strongholds the militia loyal to Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in Basra.

General MUHAMMAD JAWAD HUWAYDI(ph) (Head, Iraqi Security Forces): (Through translator) The military offensive was hastily launched, but ended up achieving its goals.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: General Muhammad Jawad Huwaydi heads the Iraqi Security effort in Basra now.

Gen. HUWAYDI: (Through translator) Some of the soldiers were not trained well enough. And some were too young to face battle. And some of the soldiers who where from Basra came under pressures from both their families and tribes, and all this led to some desertions among the soldiers.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But General Huwaydi reserved his biggest criticism for the Iraqi police trained and armed by British forces.

Gen. HUWAYDI: The police performance was bad. The police force was not properly built in the first place, so it was to be expected in a way. They deserted their positions, only a few fought alongside the army. The police were so heavily infiltrated by the militias that it would have been better if they had not been there at all.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Muqtada al-Sadr's declaration of a ceasefire changed the fortunes of the Iraqi forces here. Militiamen who had been fighting and winning in some areas, laid down their weapons. The Iraqi Army was able to move in to previously no-go neighborhoods. They took advantage of the ceasefire by blanketing the city. Thirteen hundred policemen who were thought to have ties to the militias were fired. General Huwaydi says that the security forces are now in full control of Basra. And he says they've made over 600 arrests. He boasts...

Gen. HUWAYDI: (Trough translator) Everyone thought those militias were a great force, but they turned out to be merely paper tigers.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He acknowledges though that many militiamen have slipped away, to other countries or other parts of Iraq, ready fight another day. Still, on the street of Basra, for now, Nouri al-Maliki and his army are popular.

(Soundbite of celebration)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: A carload of wedding celebrants begins chanting pro-Malaki songs as they approach an Iraqi checkpoint. To the beat of wedding drums they sing. All the Iraqi people are with you, Nouri al-Maliki. And Maliki, you brought the Iraqi people freedom.

(Soundbite of celebration)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Nearby, shopkeeper Abdul Hadun(ph) says he will vote for the party that represents Malaki in the upcoming provincial elections slated for the fall.

Mr. ABDUL HADUN: (Through translator) I will vote for those who represent Malaki because he has proved his ability. People need a strong person who looks for security.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: By late last week, things are much quieter on the Riverfront Cornish. An attack at a nearby checkpoint left the two policemen dead, prompting wary Basra residents to stay home. And the provincial council issued a new decree banning alcohol that dampened the festive spirit. Twenty-five-year-old policeman Mudjur Hamid(ph) says it was a good decision.

Mr. MUDJUR HAMID (Policeman): (Through translator) People are happy with this decision because many young people drink in an immoral way on the Cornish and the families couldn't go there because of the drunken people.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The Cornish was mostly empty by 9:00 that night. The streets nearby were similarly deserted safe for speeding trucks filled with police.

Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Basra.

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