CAMP AS SAYLIYAH, Qatar – British forces said they saw signs Tuesday that the tide of the war in southern Iraq may be turning in their favor: Iraqis were starting to warm to their presence in towns firmly under their control, where troops felt safe enough to replace helmets with berets.
Lights flickered on for the first time in months in the port city of Umm Qasr, and schools and shops were reopening. Significantly, more civilians were informing foreign troops about the whereabouts of paramilitary forces and members of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's Baath Party, British officials said.
"Within the southern area of Iraq, we see a large degree of normality starting to appear amongst the Iraqi population," said Group Capt. Al Lockwood, a spokesman for British forces in the Gulf.
Around Nasiriyah, where the coalition has met with stiff resistance, civilians are now helping U.S. special forces find troops loyal to Saddam, Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks told reporters Tuesday at a news conference in Kuwait.
Brooks said local Iraqis are "increasingly willing" to aid the U.S. and British forces throughout the main areas of fighting.
Marines were aided by 100 tribal fighters who helped fight Iraqi forces and remove explosives from a bridge north of Nasiriyah. In the western desert, civilians helped Army troops remove explosives from a hospital and check buildings, he added.
Lockwood stressed that tensions were still high in Basra, Iraq's second-largest city where British forces have skirmished almost daily with forces loyal to Saddam while trying to provide humanitarian aid to the city's 1.3 million people.
And military operations continued in the region, including a raid on Baath party members in the town of Safwan, said another British spokesman, Col. Chris Vernon.
But Lockwood said residents were increasingly willing to approach British troops who have ringed Basra to give information about known paramilitaries and other loyalists.
"They realize that we are there to liberate them, not to occupy," he said. "Certainly, there are still military engagements happening with the paramilitary forces, but the aid is flowing into Basra now."
The British appear confident that they have reached some level of security in four southern towns. On Tuesday, British troops had changed their combat helmets for berets in Umm Qasr, As Zubayr, Rumeila and Safwan, British officials said.
Lockwood said the berets makes the soldiers appear more friendly and approachable, and serve as a confidence-building measure on both sides.
"It shows that we have confidence in them, and they can have confidence in us," he said.
In addition, more humanitarian aid was flowing into the region, including from the United Nations and other aid organizations, he said.
U.S. and British officials have acknowledged the expected uprising by anti-Saddam Shiite residents of Basra and other southern towns in support of coalition troops hasn't borne out to any large degree.
They have attributed the residents' wariness to the fact that when Shiites did rise up in 1991, allied forces largely abandoned them and left them to be punished or killed by the Iraqi leadership.
"They have suffered tragically, enormously under the Saddam Hussein regime," Lockwood said. "And although it's taken some time because of the events of 1991, they're beginning to gain the confidence now, they know we're not going away. They know we will be there to protect them."