As Britain Leaves, Basra Dares to Dream of Peace

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Abbie Trayler-Smith / Panos

Men, women and children stroll the streets of central Basra in Iraq on Feb. 10, 2009

A picture of a genial Tom Cruise hangs above the door to the King beauty parlor in downtown Basra. For more than a decade, Sameer Abdalhadi has been snipping and shaving and primping in the cramped salon with its display case of Dr. James Freckle and Acne Soap and Muscular Man perfume. On this February afternoon, he has given street vendor Mustafa Abdalsada a modish en brosse haircut and shaved his beard, leaving just a hint of designer stubble. Local men tend to cultivate beards or luxuriant mustaches of the kind that make even despots look avuncular, but Abdalhadi encourages his clients to try something new. The barber, driven like many Basrawis to erase reminders of a painful past, is giving his battle-scarred city a makeover, one man at a time. (See pictures of Iraq's revival.)

The challenge to remake Basra is daunting. Caught in the cross fire of the Iran-Iraq war and Iraq's occupation and retreat from Kuwait, brutally punished for uprisings against Saddam Hussein only to see his tyranny give way to the mob rule of Shi'ite militias, both the city and province of Basra have sustained deep wounds over almost 30 years. British forces and government agencies based in Basra after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion became a magnet for militia attacks and struggled to deliver on promises of reconstruction and development. But in March 2008, the Iraqi army launched an operation code-named Charge of the Knights to disperse the militias. Since autumn, violence has been replaced by an uneasy calm, and with Britain preparing to withdraw all but a small rump of its 4,100 troops in southern Iraq by May 31, Basra is daring to dream of peace.

"I'm probably being wildly over the top, but I do find this an incredibly encouraging place to be right now," says Nigel Haywood, Britain's consul general in Basra. The transformation from battleground to bustling municipality has been so rapid that it's natural to question whether a return to violence might not be as swift. Major General Andy Salmon, the commander of the multinational forces in the region, believes that widespread optimism — among Basrawis as well as their soon-to-depart overlords — is justified and itself a force for change. His mission, he says, has been "to protect that optimism, shape it and build it. I am confident Basra is not going to go back to the previous darkness."

For barber Abdalhadi, the change has brought immediate benefits. He works late and without a bodyguard. When the militias held sway, he employed security and had to shut up shop at 4 p.m. "If I had stayed later, they would have come to kill me," he says. The militias declared that shaving was un-Muslim, but some gangs were simply running protection rackets, says Abdalhadi. In 2007, his friend and colleague Shareef was tortured and murdered with a drill, but Abdalhadi continued to ply his trade. "I'm the breadwinner. Who would feed my family?" he asks.

Few Basrawi families have escaped the years of upheaval unscathed. The militias targeted women they deemed guilty of loose behavior. That meant that until recently, sisters-in-law Yusra Mahmoud and Saleema Abdalhussein hurried home before dark. Now, on a balmy February evening, they linger in the amusement park overlooking the Shatt al-Arab waterway and discuss their children. Mahmoud has five, ranging in age from 19 to 7; Abdalhussein has just one, a son born in 1981 not long before her husband, an Iraqi conscript, was killed fighting Iran. "We're always talking about the future of the children and what it holds for them," says Mahmoud. "We have been through many wars as a generation. We hope our children will have happier lives."

Mahmoud voted in the regional elections in January for candidates she felt could best realize her dreams for "sustained security, jobs for young people and a better Iraq." Voting went off without violence in Basra (the only incident to mar the process came when an overenthusiastic Iraqi policeman fired a gun into the air to encourage voters into a polling station). The bloc affiliated with Iraq's Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, reaped benefits from his strong action against the militias; in Basra, messages of national unity played better with the electorate than did religious or sectarian appeals. "We have a new breed of politicians who can take Basra into a new phase," says Emad al-Battat, the representative to Basra of Iraq's most senior Shi'a cleric, Sayyed Ali al-Sistani. "The fact that Iraqis chose secular politicians over religious ones does not mean Iraq has become any less religious. But the top priority of the Iraqi people is national unity."

"The politicians made promises in their manifestos. Now they have to walk the walk," he adds.

That walk is strewn with trash — stinking tangles of plastic and organic matter and decaying animal carcasses fester on sidewalks. Until recently, the Basrawis' focus was on security. Since autumn, private polling undertaken by the British government has seen the poor state of public services and infrastructure leapfrog that concern; phone-in programs on the local Al-Mirbad radio station are dominated by discussions of sewage and the electrical brownouts that hit the city several times every day.

Tackling these problems is essential if the economy is to continue to grow and provide jobs. Unemployment currently stands at 17% and reaches 30% among younger Basrawis. Major General Salmon says the provision of jobs and services is key to stability. "The only people who listened were [the militias]," he says. "That's why Hizballah did well elsewhere. They promise to tend to the needs of the people."

"What do you want to be when you grow up?" At a multifaith school run by the Chaldean church in Basra, a class of 4-year-olds is addressing that universal question. Several kids want to be doctors; there's a would-be teacher too. Allawi plans to be a businessman. Moqtada intends to join the army "so I can give protection." If the optimists are right, his services won't be required to keep the peace in his city.

See pictures of life inside a Baghdad prison.

See pictures of U.S. troops' five years in Iraq.