MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel. Change has come to the city of Basra in southern Iraq. It was once a famous cultural center, a place of pleasure and possibility. After the Iraq war began, Basra fell into the grip of strict Islamist gangs. In March, the Iraqi government went to battle and regained control of Basra with help from U.S. forces. NPR's Corey Flintoff visited Basra and found people rediscovering their easygoing lifestyle.
COREY FLINTOFF: Iraq's biggest southern city shares some of the attributes of New Orleans. Like the Big Easy, Basra is a river city at the point where Iraq's two great rivers, the Tigris and Euphrates, converge and flow into the Persian Gulf. Like New Orleans, Basra is a commercial center, noted for its good food, its music, and its easygoing approach to life. Hatim al-Bachary is so proud of his new amusement park that he calls it Omens of al-Bachary, a sign of a good future for his prominent family and his city. He gestures broadly, a big man who stands out among the casual crowds in his silky suit, his red tie and matching pocket square.
Mr. HATIM AL-BACHARY (Iraqi Entrepreneur): I created a place for the Basrawi family to have - where they could come and settle down and start to remove that old days of sadness, killing, messing around.
FLINTOFF: The old days that Bachary is talking about were only nine months ago, the time when Basra was controlled by extremists so cruel that they would kill a pretty girl for wearing lipstick. The music that fills Bachary's little park would have drawn a mortar attack.
Mr. AL-BACHARY: You can hear the music. And the Iraqi, they like the music, so they are enjoying, and they are happy, and you can see them dancing. And this is something new.
FLINTOFF: Hundreds of people fill the park on a Thursday evening, the start of the Muslim weekend, listening to a local pop band and watching it on Mr. Bachary's jumbo TV screen. Actually, only young men and little children are dancing. Young women sit sedately with their families.
Mr. AL-BACHARY: As you could see over here, it's a little zoo. We made it for kids because our kids have not seen - for a long time, have not seen animals.
FLINTOFF: Around midnight, four young men sit near the exit, sharing a fragrant water pipe. They're off from work at Iraq's Southern Oil Company, and they're here to be seen, tight shirts open at the chest and hair sculpted with gel. It's a look that would have gotten them killed just a short time ago.
Unidentified Man: (Through Translator) We used to see dead bodies dumped by the road all the time. It was horrible. You could see why they were killed. They'd have long hair or trendy clothes.
FLINTOFF: The young men say they thank Mr. Bachary for giving them a place to relax. He beams. Although Bachary says he built his amusement park for pleasure, he has bigger ideas: a 30-story hotel and other projects he says will create thousands of jobs for young men like these. As a hub for Iraq's largest oil fields, Basra could have the financial clout to make that happen. Mr. Bachary has political ambitions, too, and says he would like one day to be Iraq's president. Even in today's Iraq, that can be a dangerous ambition, but no more dangerous, he says, than trying to build an amusement park in the face of extremist opposition.
Mr. AL-BACHARY: Yes, yes, well, it happens many times that I got threatened. And three times they tried to kill me. And - but that would never stop me.
FLINTOFF: Some in Basra recall that Mr. Bachary drove around the city in an expensive SUV, without bodyguards, and yet he survived. It's something to wonder about, they say, because no one could do that without protection from someone powerful. Police Colonel Nouri Jaffar Fayadh lights another in a long chain of cigarettes as he listens to reports from his patrols.
(Soundbite of patrol radio reports)
FLINTOFF: He has more than 40 of them cruising the city through the night. At the moment, they have nothing more serious to report than a purse snatcher on a bicycle.
Mr. NOURI JAFFAR FAYADH (Police Colonel): (Arabic spoken)
FLINTOFF: Colonel Nouri says before the security forces moved in, in March, Basra was like a wilderness, where the weak were eaten by the strong. He says his police were outgunned by thugs who got their weapons and training from abroad, which, in this border city, means Iran. Basra's centuries-old reputation as a cultural and artistic center grew out of its coffeehouses and salons. But today, it's reviving at Basra University. Kholod Jabar Ubaid is a graduate student at the College of Fine Arts. She is also an actress who says she couldn't work because the militias banned any kind of theater.
Ms. KHOLOD JABAR UBAID (Graduate Student, College of Fine Arts, Actress): (Arabic spoken)
FLINTOFF: Now, she says, she recently played a role in a local television series. Kholod says that in the bad days, she and other women were forced to wear head scarves and abayas, the billowing garments that covers a woman in black from head to foot. Today, most young women on the campus still wear head scarves, but those scarves are bright pastels that sparkle with sequins. Young men and women walk together and sit together in the cafes and play what used to be forbidden pop songs on their cell phones.
(Soundbite of music)
FLINTOFF: Police colonel Nouri's cell phone has something far more sinister on it. As he talks about the dangers his police officers faced during the reign of terror, he shows a gruesome video on the cell-phone screen. It's the corpse of a young man in the Basra morgue.
Mr. FAYADH: (Arabic spoken)
FLINTOFF: See the marks of torture on his back? The colonel asks. They even tore out his fingernails because he wouldn't tell them where I was. The murdered man was Colonel Nouri's son-in-law, he says. And while he was at the morgue to claim the body, he received a call on his cell phone from a militia gangster who said, are you happy now? We hope you're next.
(Soundbite of radio report)
FLINTOFF: Colonel Nouri puts the cell phone aside and lights another cigarette. He says he keeps the memory of his son-in-law in his heart. The only reason he keeps the video on his cell phone is so he can remind other people how bad things were. He knows his ancient, indolent, pleasure-loving city would like nothing better than to forget. Corey Flintoff, NPR News.