The Iraqi army soldiers walked with confidence into this city's notorious Five Miles neighborhood. Shiite militiamen once greeted them with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades. Now, smiling children waved, and a nearby market pulsed with energy. "Nobody before was able to get in here," said Col. Bilal al-Dayni, surveying the battle-scarred landscape.
For Dayni, a barrel-chested former officer in Saddam Hussein's military, the scene was a vindication. The Americans disbanded Hussein's army after the 2003 invasion. Under British administration, Basra fell into the grip of zealots and gunmen. But nearly three months after the Iraqi government launched an offensive to reinstall authority, about 30,000 Iraqi soldiers control Basra, providing a glimpse of what might happen when the bulk of U.S. troops depart Iraq.
"The Iraqi army is like an antique vase," said Dayni, beaming. "When you remove the dust, you will find a diamond."
As the two countries pursue contentious negotiations over the future role of the U.S. military in Iraq, the evolution of Basra suggests that Iraqi troops, when deployed in large numbers in areas without deep sectarian divisions, can provide security largely on their own.
For Iraqi army commanders in this strategic southern Shiite city, where much of Iraq's oil flows to the rest of the world, the Basra offensive has reinvigorated their sense of pride.
"Iraqis feel sensitive to the presence of foreign troops, so of course people will deal differently with Iraqi forces," said Brig. Gen. Mohan al-Freiji, the former top Iraqi army commander in Basra. "We understand Islamic society, our soldiers know the language, and we connect better with our people.
Dayni stepped out of his Humvee and walked to a corner of a wide, traffic-choked highway that led toward Baghdad. Before the offensive, residents called it the Road of Death. Dayni knew why: In early April, a bomb killed his battalion commander, Brig. Gen. Wisam Salih Mahdi, a few yards from where Dayni stood.
"The militias in Basra are finished," Dayni said. "What remains are the last fugitives, like their last breath."
The Basra offensive, by all descriptions, was a haphazard affair. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki consulted neither his political allies nor Iraq's parliament. American generals knew of the operation a few days before its launch. In the initial days, hundreds of Iraqi army soldiers fled their posts, forcing Maliki to bring in reinforcements. Clashes erupted across southern Iraq and in Baghdad's Sadr City district, the stronghold of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army.
But outside forces came to Maliki's aid. British and American warplanes bombarded Shiite militia targets, and U.S. military advisers assisted Iraqi commanders. Sadr urged his fighters to stand down and obey a cease-fire he imposed last August. Iran played a major role in brokering a politically expedient deal between Sadr and the government. The deal ended the offensive, allowing Iraqi forces to enter and maintain checkpoints around the city.
Despite Dayni's optimism, it's still unclear whether Maliki's gambit has succeeded. The Mahdi Army has been known to disappear from the streets in other areas of Iraq, only to resurface and resume the fight months later. Because of the deal, Iraqi troops never faced any prolonged fighting. Neither the Americans nor the British have full confidence in Iraq's fledgling army.
Also unclear is whether the lessons of Basra can be applied elsewhere, given the country's complex sectarian and political makeup.
But Basra's sudden transformation, from a city under the control of fundamentalist militias to one in which simple freedoms like playing music can be enjoyed again, has brought praise for the Iraqi army. In interviews across the city, Basrans also expressed anger at the British, who steadily slashed their forces from a high of 43,000 in 2003 to a current level of 4,000. In December, they handed over control of Basra province to Iraq and are now based at the airport miles outside the city center, along with some U.S. military advisers.
Many Basrans believe the British did not take a forceful stand against the militias because they were wary of high casualty counts in a war that is unpopular in Britain.
"The presence of the British forces in Basra was a tragedy," said Ayad al-Kanaan, a tribal leader in the city's Tannouma enclave, once a stronghold of the Mahdi Army. "We believed there was a deal between the British and the militias: 'Don't attack us. And we won't chase you.' "
In al-Andalus Park, Abdul Ridha Ali, 55, was strolling between swings and slides with his daughter, an action he had been too afraid to take under British control. Then, militiamen routinely patrolled the park and attacked anyone they deemed un-Islamic.
"The British didn't understand us," Ali said. "Iraqis know their ground, their neighborhoods, their people. The government is from our people."
British military officials acknowledge they were not successful in ridding Basra of the militias and criminal groups. But they said they played a significant role in training Iraqi troops to take over security responsibilities.
"Ultimately, the problem of the militia groups in Iraq will require a political, not a military, solution," Lt. Col. Nick Turner, a British military spokesman, wrote in an e-mail.
Dayni's convoy of Humvees proceeded to a market in the center of Five Miles. He got out and walked without a bulletproof jacket past stalls, stopping to chat with shopkeepers. He asked about their lives, their businesses. He joked with children. One shopkeeper approached him and told him that several shops down the road had been damaged during the offensive.
"When are we going to be compensated?" the shopkeeper demanded.
Dayni smiled, and cupped his fingers and thumb together in an Iraqi gesture that signifies patience. "I'll do my best for you," Dayni said, avoiding confrontation.
Earlier that morning, Dayni and his soldiers solved a dispute between two groups of young men by using traditional Iraqi tribal negotiation. "If it happened before we were in Basra, there would have been rivers of blood," Dayni said.
His soldiers surrounded him, heavily armed. One carried a rocket-propelled grenade launcher on his shoulder. But for many of the vendors, the show of force bolstered confidence. "Believe me, we are satisfied and comfortable as long as you are here," another shopkeeper told Dayni.
At night, across the city, it has become routine to see pickup trucks filled with Iraqi army soldiers and police patrolling main roads. Soldiers have swiftly detained unruly youths. "A few days ago, we sold religious songs and Iraqi army soldiers came by and argued with us," said Ali Abdullah, a CD vendor on Basra's crowded al-Jazaar Street. "They beat up another vendor for selling the songs. They thought he was a militiaman."
The tough tactics underscored the fragile nature of Basra's security. Sadr's followers have accused the Iraqi army of being proxy fighters for the Shiite rivals seeking to weaken Sadr's movement before provincial elections scheduled for October.
Dayni is cautious when he speaks about the Sadrists. He said the Iraqi army fought only those militiamen who no longer obeyed Sadr. "We respect the Sadrist movement. They have a great history in Iraq," Dayni said. "We are not linked to any political party."
But many Iraqi soldiers are seen as partisan. Two Iraqi soldiers seated in a Humvee, near a billboard where Sadr's face had been ripped apart, said they feared returning to Baghdad. Both lived in Sadr City. They said they haven't told their neighbors that they are soldiers. Whenever they go home they wear civilian clothes.
One soldier they knew was killed by Mahdi Army militiamen in Sadr City last month, they said. Both asked that their names not be used, fearing persecution by militiamen.
"I didn't leave my house. I spent the whole time with my family," said one soldier, who had returned 10 days earlier from a break in Sadr City. "I would be killed if they knew."
Dayni himself is on a Mahdi Army death list in his Baghdad neighborhood of Amin. He said he hadn't seen his family in 77 days.
The convoy entered the neighborhood of Jumeila, where graffiti on the walls praised Sadr and denounced Maliki. "We are concerned, because the militias might reappear again with different names, especially when the Iraqi army leaves," said Osama Jassim, 28, who runs a cafeteria at Basra University.
Dayni ordered the convoy to stop at the Jubaila Center, a glittering department store. Once, it was a prime kidnapping zone. In its women's section, the store had stocked only black Islamic head-to-ankle abayas so as not to offend the Islamists. Now, families freely shop late into the evening. The women's section is filled with colorful attire.
"You can't compare it to the past," said Rawaa Mahdi, 23, the manager, as Dayni smiled.
But an element of the past lingered. One employee said that before the offensive, he couldn't utter a word of English because the militiamen would attack him for being Westernized. When asked for his name, the employee declined.
"They can still target me," he said.