BASRA, Iraq (Reuters Life!) - The Iraqi audience roared with laughter as the clowns, one fat and one thin, pretended to walk along a tightrope stretched on the ground.
They burst into delighted applause and whistles when a female animal trainer from Ukraine performed a short belly dance before presenting an eclectic mix of chimpanzees, dogs, snakes and a porcupine.
The first foreign circus to unfurl its tent flaps in southern Iraq in possibly decades has taken the oil city of Basra by storm, bringing laughter to a public grown weary of bloodshed and tears.
The traveling Monte Carlo circus and its retinue of foreign acrobats, jugglers and clowns is a sign of improved security in Basra, once ruled by gangs and militias when sectarian violence flared after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
“This is new and we’ve been waiting for something like this for a long time. We enjoyed it so much and I hope they come back often,” said Muhanad Abdul-Wahab, a 50 year-old government engineer, who brought his daughter and son to the show.
Overall violence in Iraq has ebbed since the worst of the bloodshed between once dominant Sunnis and majority Shi’ites in 2006-07, but devastating assaults and bombings by Sunni Islamist insurgents remain common, especially in Baghdad and the north.
A siege of a Catholic church and a barrage of bombings around Baghdad has killed more than 100 people since Sunday, a reminder of Iraq’s precarious state as its leaders continue to fight over a new government eight months after an election.
The Shi’ite south, by comparison, has been relatively peaceful of late. The main threats there are roadside bombs planted by Shi’ite militia aimed at the 50,000 U.S. troops who remain in Iraq ahead of a full withdrawal by the end of 2011.
It was not always calm in Basra, 420 km (260 miles) southeast of Baghdad. The city saw fierce battles in 2008 when Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki ordered the Iraqi army to wrest back control from Shi’ite militia and criminal gangs.
“The name of Iraq used to scare the artists,” said Suhail Ubaid, the Lebanese owner of the Monte Carlo circus.
Ubaid said he convinced his crew to perform in the city of Arbil in the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan, which continued to enjoy safety and stability while the rest of Iraq descended into chaos. Then they were invited to Basra.
“At the beginning it was a difficult idea. After a long discussion, we managed to convince them to go to Basra, but they were so scared, imagining they would be kidnapped,” Ubaid said.
After a few days in the city, the 32-person crew, which includes Spanish, Kenyan, Italian, Austrian, German, Russian and Ukrainian performers, started to feel less anxious, and tentatively began to wander through Basra’s markets and streets.
Basra residents said they believed a foreign circus had not come to the city since the 1970s. Deputy Basra governor Ahmed al-Hassani said he believed it had been 40 years.
The Monte Carlo circus is expected to stay in Basra for 40 days. Tickets for a two hour performance cost $10 to $15.
Faris Sharif, a trader from the city of Nassiriya to the northwest and who came to Basra to do business, said he delayed his departure by a day after learning that a circus was in town.
“I have always wanted to see a real circus but never thought I would. I want the children and women of Nassiriya to see it too. It is very beautiful. I envy Basra for what I saw today.”
Writing by Aseel Kami; Editing by Michael Christie and Paul Casciato