By Marine Corps 1st Lt. Brian Block
Special to American Forces Press Service
May 13, 2008 - The security environment in Basra, Iraq, has improved dramatically since 1st Iraqi Army Quick Reaction Force fought its way into the city April 1. Criminal elements had taken over parts of the city from local Iraqi security forces and imposed their own rule on a city that once was a cultural and commercial beacon for all of Iraq.
"This city was being held hostage by a small group of criminal militias," said Marine Corps Col. Robert F. Castellvi, military training team advisor for 1st Iraqi Army Quick Reaction Force.
Music and Western influence were prohibited; women faced death threats if they ventured outside their homes dressed in anything other than a full burkah; and intersections were used as mortar positions.
In less than a month, life in Basra couldn't be more different.
The Iraqi soldiers continue to pursue criminals and outlaws through Basra's neighborhoods, but as Quick Reaction Force 1, formerly 1st Brigade, moves through neighborhoods such as Jumhuriya, the sound of gunfire no longer is common.
"The people are happier now," said Marine Corps Maj. Robert S. Washington, senior military transition team advisor for 2nd Battalion, Quick Reaction Force 1. "They can go out; they can go to the markets."
Stores opened early in the morning as the soldiers cleared houses next door, looking for weapons, bombs and wanted criminals. Children walked to school past Iraqi army Humvees and posed for pictures with soldiers.
In Jumhuriya, local citizens volunteered information that led to the arrest of nearly 10 suspected local gang members and the discovery of illegal weapons and improvised explosive devices.
"[The Iraqi soldiers] are getting a lot of their information by going out and talking to the local civilians," Marine Corps 2nd Lt. Matthew S. Weant, staff intelligence advisor for the Iraqi battalion. "We've had people lead us directly to weapons caches and IEDs; even bringing them to us."
There is more to be done in Basra. The Iraqi government and coalition forces are working with local leaders to address issues with sanitation, infrastructure and economy that will provide long-lasting improvements to the quality of life for local residents.
Recently, local officials opened an open-air market in the neighborhood of Jameat in an effort to boost the local economy.
Local Iraqi security forces continue to hold the ground taken by the quick-reaction force to guard against a possible resurgence of criminal activity. But, boosted by the confidence of success, they say they are ready for whatever may happen.
(Marine Corps 1st Lt. Brian Block serves in Public Affairs with the 1st Iraqi Army Quick Reaction Force Military Training Team, Multinational Force West.)