Southern Iraq Still Friendly to U.S. Troops

While American troops in the center of Iraq face daily attacks, U.S. soldiers in this southern city say they feel safe and even welcome here.

Saddam Hussein's persecution of the predominantly Shiite Muslim (search) region during his 23-year rule may be why coalition forces have been welcomed south of Baghdad, where Shiites live in greatest numbers. Shiites make up 60 percent of Iraq's 24 million people.

"Here, it's pretty safe, but we have to be cautious," said Marine Cpl. Ayoade Ojikute, a 31-year-old from New York City, as he sat in the scorching sun in Nasiriyah. "We hear all the news from Baghdad and we don't know what's going on."

Unlike cities in the so-called "Sunni Triangle" — Baghdad, Fallujah, Tikrit or Ramadi — southern Iraq has proven remarkably peaceful since Saddam's ouster April 9.

"Our relations with the Shiites in our area are very, very good. We work with them everyday and they work with us," said Maj. Gen. Keith Stadler, the commander of the Marine Expeditionary Brigade in Hilla (search). "I think they clearly see promise in this temporary partnership."

Stadler said the last Marine to be killed in action in the area was April 12, while in Baghdad a U.S. soldier was killed in fighting Monday. Since President Bush declared major combat operations had ended May 1, at least 31 U.S. troops have been killed by hostile fire.

Since it has been quiet in southern Iraq, infrastructure repair has been able to move forward and the population can see life improving.

Most of southern Iraq is getting more electricity today than in prewar periods. The same goes for water supplies. Few cars wait to get gas unlike in the capital where lines at pumps stretch for hundreds of yards.

People are also making more money than under the Saddam regime.

"We don't think that the process is going to take a generation here. We think that the process is in motion," said Maj. Ralf Dengler, Marine executive officer in Dhi Qar Province, of which Nasiriyah is the provincial capital.

Police officer Mohammed Saheb said he made about $10 a month before the war. He's now taking home $60.

"People here are reacting positively to and with the Marines," he said.

Still, locals complain about lack of security and unemployment.

Capt. Ray Lopes, aviation officer in Nasiriyah (search), said unemployment among the 750,000 people of Dhi Qar is 65 percent, but the hope is businesses and factories closed by the war will reopen soon.

Officials connected to the Marine Expeditionary Forces said the unit had built eight bridges and repaired 47 schools, three hospitals, nine utility systems, eight public buildings. It added that 71 projects are in progress.

In the Shiite Muslim holy cities of Karbala and Najaf, Marines could be seen going about without flak jackets.

Lt. Col. Christopher C. Conlin, the Marines top commander in Najaf, told a reporter the city was safe round the clock. At midnight streets still were crowded.

Najaf's interim mayor, Haidar Mahdi Mattar, said "we are seriously working with the brothers in the coalition forces to improve services."

But although soldiers here have not faced daily guerrilla-style attacks like central Iraq, coalition troops have suffered causalities in the Karbala and Najaf.

Late last month, protesters in the southern city of Majar al-Kabir stormed a police station after British troops fired on protesters. Four British soldiers died in the attack on the station, and two others were killed in a clash near the mayor's office. Two days later, gunmen killed an American soldier who was investigating a car theft in Najaf (search).

Conlin said the Najaf killing was criminal, not political.

On Thursday, a mortar attack targeted one of the Marines bases in Karbala, but no one was wounded, the region's commander Lt. Col. Mathew Lopez said.

Still, Lopez said U.S. troops are safe in the south because people see them as "liberators."

"I think one of the basic reasons is that it is a very heavily Shiite populated area, these people were very, very oppressed by Saddam Hussein even though they were the majority," he said.