BASRA, Iraq -- THE fake palm trees with the Vegas-style lights are still in their places above what was the Dolphin Restaurant on Watan Street, swaying on the roof as garish survivors from the 1980's, when wealthy men from Kuwait, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia would come to party through the weekend on perhaps the hottest stretch of casinos and nightclubs in the gulf.
Along with its cheesy palm trees, Basra has survived years of shelling during the Iran-Iraq war, brutal persecution by Saddam Hussein, total neglect of the local infrastructure, and two invasions by American-led forces. The worn but gracious city that has emerged - the de facto capital of a proud, abruptly liberated and comparatively peaceful south - seems to be in a different country from the grim battlefield that much of Iraq has become.
And if no inconsiderable number of people here have their way, the provinces of the south, home to rich oil reserves but kept poor by Saddam Hussein, will soon become a separate country, or at least a semi-autonomous region in a loosely federal Iraq. The clear southern preference for profit over politics could make it a place where foreign companies willing to invest hard cash are able to do business.
"Quite a few people prefer to be separated, because they are disappointed," said Sadek A. Hussein, a Basra native who is a professor in the college of agriculture at the University of Basra, and who speaks with the mildness characteristic of southern Iraq. The trait is refreshing in itself, in a country better known for its firebrands, chatterboxes and just plain loudmouths.
Still, Jameel Jassim, 50, who works as a driver at the university and who was ferrying Dr. Hussein around Basra on Thursday, was more direct. "I do prefer that, to be isolated as a state," Mr. Jassim said.
Beneath the soft sell, the raw stubbornness of this culture of survivors is not to be underestimated. Dr. Hussein and others say that instead of continuing to send all the oil money north to Baghdad, officials should immediately use it to rebuild Basra and the south, where there is little visible sign of new public investment and the few major projects undertaken by the American-led coalition have not been very successful. Some members of the local governing council recently went as far as trying to impose a 10 percent tax on oil revenue from the south, but they were stymied by legal barriers.
If southerners cannot put a stop to the great sucking sound to the north, many would like to see an international boundary between them and the capital. "They see all of the good things going to Baghdad," said Ramzi, a translator who asked that only his first name be used.
The federalist and separatist ambitions of the Kurds in northern Iraq are widely known. As peaceful and cohesive as much of that region is, though, its vision is complicated by the presence of Kurdish populations in neighboring countries, and fears that an independent Kurdistan could encourage uprisings there.
But the south of Iraq is just that, the south of Iraq, with no wider ethnic entanglements to worry about, just a close religious affinity with neighboring Iran, which, like southern Iraq, is overwhelmingly Shiite.
Several different versions of a southern Iraqi republic have been proposed. One would include only the three or four southernmost provinces - Basra, Muthanna, Dhi Gar and Maysan; and another would stretch as far north as the holy city of Karbala, 50 miles from Baghdad.
The one that sparks the most interest here, though, is a Singapore-style Republic of Basra alone. Comparable in area to neighboring Kuwait, such a republic could be equally rich. With foreign investment, Ramzi asserted, its economy could overtake that of the tiny but sparkling Gulf emirate of Qatar within three years.
And Zuhair Kubba, a board member of the Basra Chamber of Commerce, said that, in contrast to the xenophobia dogging other regions of Iraq, Basra's history made it likely to welcome foreign investment.
"They have a port, and being a port, they have experience with foreigners," said Mr. Kubba, a follower of the largely pacifist and apolitical Sheikhi branch of Shiite Islam, whose holiest cleric, Sayyed Ali Al-Mousawi, is based in a Basra mosque.
Some foreign companies, including Kellogg, Brown & Root, the Halliburton subsidiary that is repairing parts of Iraq's oil industry under American government contracts, are already listening. The company is moving its center of operations from the insurgency-ridden streets of Baghdad to the south, said Ray Villegas, a general manager for the company, and not just to be closer to its field work, which is mainly in the south.
"This is the place you want to be," Mr. Villegas said. "It's much different down here. You have flat open land, so you have a lot of visibility. We don't have the day-to-day traffic problems that you experience up in Baghdad, so the opportunity is much less for insurgents to act."
Most of all, he said, "we've found that the Iraqis here are much more willing and accommodating to approach the Americans."
Theories of where the mild and nonconfrontational southern personality originates are plentiful. Waseem Yacoub, a sales and marketing manager for Al Yakeen Company, which among other things finds Iraqi applicants for jobs with Kellogg, Brown & Root, said that in contrast to the urban chaos of Baghdad, the south had preserved the sturdy fabric of tribal loyalties.
Bearing obscure names like Al Ghizi (Mr. Yacoub's tribe), Aboudi (his boss's tribe), Al Battat and the feared crime family Al Garamsha, the tribal sheikhs typically agree to ensure protection for companies that hire their sons, Mr. Yacoub said.
"When we want to choose someone to work here, must ask about his name, his tribe," Mr. Yacoub said in slightly broken English. "We want to protect from his tribe - without stalling, without danger."
Others point to the relatively relaxed approach that British troops, who have responsibility for this part of the country, have taken to providing security. Perhaps with the experience of Northern Ireland in mind, the British often appear to go out of their way to be cordial and to resolve conflicts without resorting to firepower, as American troops in fractious cities like Baghdad often do.
Whether because of the British tactics, the unwillingness of tribal leaders to tolerate mayhem or other factors, the incidence of violence in the south has been low. Attacks on critical oil pipelines and facilities in the region were common a year ago, but there have been none so far in 2005.
Another school of thought holds that there is something inherently gentle about people of the south. Sayyed Abdul Ali Al-Mousawi, the son of the Sheikhi leader, said in an interview just before prayers on Friday that there was an Arabic word, saathij, that described the southern temperament.
Tapping the word into an electronic translator, Sayyed Mousawi and his visitors saw these English equivalents appear: simple, unsophisticated, credulous. The same traits, he said, helped explain why southerners' political rights always seemed to be usurped by the sharpsters of Baghdad. "They usually make a trick on them," Sayyed Mousawi said, chuckling.
The Jan. 30 electoral victory of a southern-based Shiite coalition closely allied with Iran may help redress some of those grievances without secession. The Shiite coalition has, like the American authorities, said it is committed to a unitary Iraq, one that the country's Shiite majority now has its first chance to govern.
The same coalition, with its deep interest in impressing Islamic law into the new Iraqi constitution, could keep the lights on the palm trees above the former Dolphin Restaurant from coming to life again. (Inside the building, there is now a company that supplies food to the Iraqi national guard.)
But it has not escaped Baghdad's notice that the south has already begun flexing its muscles. One of the most powerful men in the south, Jabbar A. H. Al-Ueibi, director general of the government-owned South Oil Company, has drawn the ire of his superiors in the oil ministry for failing to consult them before making major decisions concerning the south's most precious resource.
Americans in the south, who profess deep respect for Mr. Jabbar , know him as "the godfather" - not for any crime connections, but because of the incalculable loyalty his position has won him among the people of Basra. And like Marlon Brando when he was temporarily overmatched, Mr. Jabbar knows that now is not the time to hurl challenges toward Baghdad.
"During the era after the war," Mr. Jabbar said in an interview, referring to the 2003 invasion, "there was no government, there was no law, there was nothing. So I prefer to take a decision as my responsibility, and now there is a lot of questions about this. 'Why did you take decision on this?' "
"Anyway," Mr. Jabbar said in a low, almost mumbling voice. "I don't want to bother you with my troubles, okay?"
By James Glanz
New York Times