(AFP) – Apr 15, 2008
BASRA, Iraq (AFP) — Three weeks after Iraqi troops swarmed into the southern city of Basra to take on armed militiamen who had overrun the streets, many residents say they feel safer and that their lives have improved.
The fierce fighting which marked the first week of Operation Sawlat al-Fursan (Charge of the Knights) has given way to slower, more focused house-by-house searches by Iraqi troops, which led on Monday to the freeing of an abducted British journalist.
Residents say the streets have been cleared of gunmen, markets have reopened, basic services have been resumed and a measure of normality has returned to the oil-rich city.
The port of Umm Qasr is in the hands of the Iraqi forces who wrested control of the facility from Shiite militiamen, and according to the British military it is operational once again.
However, the city is flooded with troops, innumerable checkpoints constantly snarl the traffic, residents are scared to go out at night despite the curfew being relaxed, and the sound of sporadic gunfire can still be heard.
An AFP correspondent said three northwestern neighbourhoods once under the firm control of the Mahdi Army militia of radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr -- Al-Hayaniyah, Khamsamile and Garma -- are now encircled by Iraqi troops who are carrying out door-to-door searches.
Two other neighbourhoods once dominated by the Mahdi Army, Al-Qiblah in the southwest and Al-Taymiyyah in the centre, have been cleared of weaponry and many people have been arrested, military officials say.
Residents expressed relief at the improved security.
"I am very happy about the situation right now. The deployment of the Iraqi army has made gunmen and gangsters disappear from the streets," said court employee Mahdi Fallah, 42.
"The gangs were controlling the ports and smuggling oil. Now the ports are back in government hands. Everything in Basra is better than before."
Taxi driver Samir Hashim, 35, said he now felt safer driving through the city's streets and was willing to put up with the traffic jams caused by the many security checkpoints.
"We feel secure. Assassinations have ended, organised crime is finished and armed groups are no longer on the streets," said Hashim.
"I think Basra will be the best city in Iraq," he added optimistically. "We are finally beginning to feel there is law in Basra."
"We feel comfortable and safe and secure," said civil servant Alah Mustapha.
"The situation in Basra is stable. The Iraqi army controls the city and there are no longer armed groups on the streets."
The Iraqi security operations have not been without severe problems, and on Sunday 1,300 police and soldiers were sacked for failing to do their duty during the assault, which began on March 25 under orders of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.
Iraqi military officers have also come under fire from their coalition force allies for launching the operations without adequate preparation, with American commander in Iraq General David Petraeus saying Maliki had disregarded US advice to delay the assault.
But the security forces were given a boost by the rescue of British photographer Richard Butler on Monday two months after he was kidnapped from a Basra hotel.
The journalist was freed when troops from the army's Fourteenth Division raided a house in Basra's Jubaiyia neighbourhood, not knowing he was being held captive there.
The US military, meanwhile, said that since the crackdown began, the Iraqi security forces have arrested some 430 people, including 28 death row convicts who had been on the run.
And the British military, which is stationed at Basra airport giving logistical and air support to the Iraqi forces, said Iraqi soldiers had uncovered large caches of weapons and had dismantled a car bomb factory.
The Sadr movement has bitterly denounced the crackdown, accusing the government of using the security forces to weaken its political opponents ahead of provincial elections due in October.
A similar crackdown is also under way in the Mahdi Army's eastern Baghdad bastion of Sadr City where around 90 people have been killed in clashes between US and Iraqi forces and Shiite militiamen in the past 10 days.
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