BASRA, Iraq -- The tourist ship "Peace" was at anchor in the Shatt al Arab waterway but southern Iraq's business leaders were eager to explore new waters when Christopher Hill, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, took the podium Thursday and urged them to project positive energy instead of complaining about all the things that are wrong with Iraq.
After declaring Hill an honorary citizen of Basra, the center of southern Iraq's oil wealth and home to its major port, Hatim al Machari, the owner of several publications, went on to welcome the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of his country. "We feel proud that America and the multi-national forces have freed our country from the Saddam (Hussein) regime," he said.
Three months after U.S. troops withdrew from Iraq's cities and started packing their bags, violence is down dramatically in Iraq, and the U.S. seems to be returning to a role familiar from postwar Western Europe -- that of supporter, protector and mentor.
Iraqi military and civilian officials talk about the United States as a strategic partner in a dangerous neighborhood, the facilitator of future business investments, even the solver of problems in the provinces and the dysfunctional central government.
Ehsan Abdul Jabbar, the head of a local government investment council in Basra, told the crowd of 50 aboard the "Peace" that the Americans are staying "to lead Iraq to the place where it can develop, to reach with Iraq the edge of safety."
Hill agreed with a businessman who asked for help convincing the United Nations to revoke 1991 sanctions that still thwart Iraq's air and sea transportation. "It's definitely on my radar screen," Hill said -- just what the audience wanted to hear.
"We are sure that if the Americans are convinced of something they will do it," someone cried out. The 50 or so businessmen nodded agreement as the mood morphed into that of a revival meeting.
It was the first trip to Iraq's second-largest city for Hill, a veteran diplomat with experience in Eastern Europe and Korea, since he assumed his post in late April. Hill came to Basra to deliver the "tough love" message that Iraqis must start taking over the management of their own affairs, but his own takeaway was that the country's enormous problems could be solved if Iraqis learn to manage their affairs.
His visit took place on the eve of a U.S.-sponsored conference in Washington that's expected to attract hundreds of U.S. and foreign investors, as well as some 200 Iraqi businessmen in a delegation led by Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki.
The top ranking-military officer in Basra, Maj. Gen. Mohammed Jawad Hwaidi, in a separate meeting, expressed gratitude for the hearts-and-minds projects that U.S. forces and civil affairs experts are undertaking and asked the U.S. to help defend Shiite Muslim-ruled Iraq in the face of hostile Sunni-ruled countries.
"Neighboring countries in the area will not like to see a strong and secure Iraq," he told Hill, singling out Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Syria by name. Hill responded diplomatically that some of Iraq's neighbors "dislike us even more than they dislike you," a reference to Iran, but added: "Others have respect for us, and I think we can do something to help you," a reference to the Sunni neighbors.
As for the U.S. military presence, "as long as your people want us here, we will be here," Hill said.
Hwaidi, who spent years in prison under the Saddam Hussein regime and in March 2008 was in charge of the operations room when Maliki led the military operation that freed Basra of Shiite militias, was supposed to be in Lebanon to receive medical treatment, but he delayed his departure to welcome Hill, an aide said.
When British troops were in southern Iraq, children "threw rocks at convoys," the general told him. "Now they wave and say 'hi.' " He added: "Iraqis realize the Americans are here to help change the country. With your continued support, we will find benefits both in the economy and in our security."
His told Hill that U.S. forces should continue to help restore fresh water to Basra, where due to the growing salinity of the Shatt al Arab -- the junction of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers -- the taps now spew salty water.
U.S. military experts on water said there isn't a water crisis so much as a management and maintenance crisis, caused in part by the central government's refusal to yield funds and decision-making authority to provincial authorities. The U.S. has put $40 million into fixing the water supply in the past year, and has awarded $2 million to teach blue-collar workers the technical aspects of sustaining water equipment.
"The only issue or concern that remains is how Baghdad manages its provinces, and what freedom or latitude is given to the provincial governors," said Maj. Peter Hesford, 37, of Portland, Ore., a water supply expert with the Army's 364th Civil Affairs Battalion based now in Baghdad.
"At the same time, it is important not to try to force an American system here -- we just want one that works, is efficient, and most of all is sustainable after the U.S. soldiers pack their bags and return home," he told McClatchy.
McClatchy special correspondent Laith Hammoudi contributed.
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
McClatchy Newspapers 2009