BASRA, Iraq (CNN) -- The man, blindfolded and handcuffed, crouches in the corner of the detention center while an Iraqi soldier grills him about rampant crimes being carried out by gangs in the southern city of Basra.
Iraqi authorities say this man has confessed to killing 15 girls, including a 9-year-old.
"How many girls did you kill and rape?" the soldier asks.
"I raped one, sir," the man responds.
"What was her name?"
"Ahlam," he says.
Ahlam was a university student in the predominantly Shiite city of Basra. The detainee said the gang he was in kidnapped her as she was leaving the university, heading home.
"They forced me, and I killed her with a machine gun, sir," he says.
The suspect, who is unshaven and appears to be in his 20s or 30s, was arrested by Iraq security forces after they retook most of Basra in April.
CNN was shown what authorities say was his first confession. On it are the names of 15 girls whom he admitted kidnapping, raping and killing. The youngest girl on the list was just 9 years old.
Basra turned into a battleground between warring Shiite factions vying for control of the country's oil-rich south after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Basra's streets teemed with Shiite militias armed with weapons, mostly from Iran, according to the Iraqi forces and the U.S. military. Watch a mom describe her three sons killed »
For four years after the invasion, Basra was under the control of British forces, but they were unable to contain the violence and withdrew in September last year.
Women bore the brunt of the militias' extremist ideologies. The militants spray-painted threats on walls across Basra, warning women to wear headscarves and not to wear makeup. Women were sometimes executed for the vague charge of doing something "un-Islamic."
In the wasteland on the outskirts of Basra, dotted with rundown homes, the stench of death mixes with the sewage. Local residents told the Iraqi army that executions often take place in the area, particularly for women, sometimes killed for something as seemingly innocuous as wearing jeans.
Militias implemented their own laws with abandon, threatening stores for displaying mannequins with bare shoulders or for selling Western music. Many store owners are still too frightened to speak publicly.
But the horrors of militia rule are now surfacing as some residents begin to feel more comfortable speaking out.
Inside her rundown home, Sabriya's watery eyes peer out from under her robe. She points to the first photo of one of her sons on the wall.
"This one was killed because he was drinking," she says.
She draws her finger across her neck and gestures at the next photo.
"This one was slaughtered for his car."
"This one the same," she adds, looking at the third.
Her three sons, her daughter and her sister were all killed by the hard-line militia. Her sister was slaughtered because she was a single woman living alone, Sabriya says.
"They came in at night and put a pillow on her face and shot her in the head," she says.
Sabriya lives on what was once dubbed "murder street" for the daily killings that happened there last year.
On the day CNN visited, dozens of young men sat where there used to be piles of bodies. Sheik Maktouf al-Maraiyani shudders at the memory.
"Every day, we would find 10 or 15 of our men killed," he says, adding sorrowfully "one of them was my son." His son was 25 years old.
Now, "murder street" is part of a citywide effort to get Basra back on its feet. In a project funded by U.S. forces, Sheikh Maktouf and others are being paid $20 a day and upwards to clean up trash. Watch the transformation of 'murder street' »
Basra may be part of the country's oil-rich south, but it wallows in its own sewage and trash. The stench of filth is impossible to escape. The effort also helps with the massive unemployment plaguing the city.
British forces officially handed over responsibility of Basra to Iraqi forces in December.
"The situation was so bad because the security forces were controlled by the militias," says Brig. Gen. Aziz al-Swady, who commands the 14th Iraq Army Divison.
To help curb the violence, British troops have returned to the city, adopting the U.S. approach of embedding with Iraqi units as advisers. The Iraqi prime minister also has flooded the city with additional troops, bringing in soldiers from western Iraq along with their American advisers.
"Now the citizens have started to trust the Iraqi security forces," said al-Swady.
The biggest difference is that residents are starting to leave their homes, something unthinkable just a few months ago. At one of the parks in the city this past weekend, a father named Al'aa was out with his three young children and his wife.
"It's the first time that we have dared to come here in two years," he said.
The park was once often used for executions.
Everyone, residents and soldiers alike, knows the battle for Basra is not over. Militias still lurk in the shadows, and the security gains may not last without economic gains.
"The most important thing, our government must focus on finding jobs, different jobs for these people," says Maj. Gen. Tariq al-Azawi.
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