BASRA, Iraq, Oct 1 (Reuters) Residents of Iraq's southern city of Basra have begun strolling riverfront streets again after four years of fear, their city much quieter since British troops withdrew from the grand Saddam Hussein-era Basra Palace.
Political assassinations and sectarian violence continue, some city officials say, but on a much smaller scale than at any time since British troops moved into the city after the 2003 US-led invasion.
Mortar rounds, rockets and small arms fire crashed almost daily into the palace, making life hazardous for British and Iraqis alike in Iraq's second-largest city. To many Basrans the withdrawal of the British a month ago removed a proven target.
''The situation these days is better. We were living in hell ... the area is calm since their withdrawal,'' said housewife Khairiya Salman, who lives near the palace.
Civil servant Wisam Abdul Sada agreed. ''We do not hear the sounds of explosions which were shaking our houses and terrifying our women and children,'' he told Reuters.
Basra, in Iraq's Shi'ite south, has enormous strategic importance as the hub for the country's vital oil exports that account for 90 per cent of its revenue and a centre of imports and exports throughout the Gulf.
The volatile city has witnessed its share of violence in a sectarian conflict and insurgency that has killed tens of thousands of Iraqis since the 2003 invasion to topple Saddam.
While the British were frequent targets -- 41 soldiers were killed this year, the most since 2003 -- Basra has also been the centre of a turf war between rival Shi'ite groups.
That fighting was mainly between the Mehdi Army militia loyal to fiery anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council whose armed Badr wing controls police in much of the south, and the smaller Fadhila party.
The three groups have been battling for political supremacy.
The violence, which has become part of the fabric of Basra life, has not completely abated since about 500 British soldiers withdrew from the palace in the city centre to the vast airbase on its outskirts in early September.
Last week, a suicide car bomber killed three people and wounded 20 in an attack on a police station. Suicide car bombs are the hallmark of Sunni Islamist al Qaeda and are rare in Basra, where most fighting is between rival Shi'ites.
Gunmen also killed a religious aide to revered Shi'ite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani a week earlier.
ASSASSINATIONS Even before those attacks some disagreed over whether the city was now safer than anywhere else in the volatile south. Two SIIC governors were assassinated in the southern provinces of Muthanna and Diwaniya in August.
Basra city councillor Munadhil al-Mayahi said security had deteriorated over the past three months.
''Political assassinations have increased, armed robberies have increased, kidnappings have increased,'' he said.
''But this has nothing to do with the British withdrawal. All that changed after the British troops left was that bombardment of the palace stopped.'' Others described their departure from the palace as ''a wish come true''.
''Their presence was annoying and provocative most of the time,'' said Mehdi Obaid, a 39-year-old civil servant.
The pullout will lead to a planned reduction in British forces to about 5,000. Britain has already handed over security command for three other southern provinces to Iraqi forces.
A recent quarterly Pentagon report said security in southern Iraq had taken a ''notable turn for the worse'' in August, adding that there could be an increase in intra-Shi'ite fighting, once centred in Basra, across the south.
It had been feared the British withdrawal would trigger an upsurge in violence in Basra. Merchant Faris Mohammed Ali described the British soldiers as a ''scarecrow''.
''Frankly I didn't want the British troops to withdraw, not because I liked them but because I am afraid of the factions and their armed groups, they are in a constant struggle which may burn the city one day,'' he said.
But for now Basra seems quieter and safer to some families who have started to come out at night to stroll along the banks of the Shatt al-Arab river, something that would have been unthinkable not long ago.
''A year or six months ago, we were afraid to go out to this place,'' Baidaa Razaq told Reuters as she walked with her son.
''The occupiers used to come often to this place,'' she said referring to the British troops who had been stationed in Basra city since the 2003 US-led invasion.
REUTERS SKB RN1519