MOSUL, Iraq (AP) _ As the U.S. convoy stopped in front of a vacant lot-turned-playground, Iraqi children gathered excitedly as if in a candy store. Some waved. Others extended tiny arms and coyly muttered: ``Hello meester.''

The soldiers, vigilant but friendly, smiled back. One greeted the children in accented Arabic. Another tossed them muffins.

Not every encounter between Americans and Iraqis here in Iraq's third-largest city is so relaxed. As in hot spots such as Baghdad, Tikrit and Fallujah, U.S. patrols sometimes draw fire here from rocket-propelled grenades or roadside bombs.

However, American soldiers in this northern city _ once a stronghold of Saddam Hussein's regime _ have been spared the intensity and frequency of violence they face in Baghdad and the ``Sunni Triangle'' north and west of the capital.

``The level of resistance in Mosul is low,'' said Abdul Jabbar Abid Mustafa, dean of Mosul University's school of political science. He said the fact that the city fell without significant resistance spared residents harsh U.S. military operations. That has helped keep resentment to the occupation in check.

The U.S. presence is not universally supported among Mosul's nearly one million people, who include Sunni Muslim Arabs, ethnic Kurds and Christians. Resentment to foreign domination lingers beneath the surface calm.

``How can I not get upset,'' at seeing American soldiers in the city, said Abdul Khaliq Mohammed, 24. ``This is a country that's occupying us.'' He scoffed at the waves, the thumbs-up signs and smiles which the Americans interpret as friendship.

``Many people act one way in front of them (the Americans) and another when they turn their backs,'' he said.

Still, the atmosphere here is more relaxed than in Baghdad and other cities. The people of Mosul feel safe enough to stroll the streets or go on picnics along the Tigris River, even in the evenings, ignoring the occasional crackle of gunfire.

This city has not been without violence since the collapse of the former regime. Saddam's sons Odai and Qusai were killed here in July in a four-hour gunbattle. Riots and shootings erupted in the early days of the U.S. occupation.

However, Mosul has become stable enough for the city to become a routine stop for visiting U.S. congressmen and other dignitaries, who avoid the dangerous flashpoints such as Tikrit, Fallujah and Ramadi. Many such visitors come away from brief trips to Iraq convinced that conditions nationwide are better than depicted by the media.

``The north is a lot better,'' said 2nd Lt. Jacob Moulin from the 101st Airborne Division. ``From what I heard, I do feel safer in Mosul than I would in Baghdad, very much so.''

That hasn't always been in the case. After arriving here in April, U.S. Marines confronted rioters for several days of clashes in which about 20 Iraqis were killed and dozens wounded, according to hospital officials.

Over time, however, the situation has calmed _ a pattern coalition officials hope will be repeated across Iraq.

``There are some pretty good reasons why you would think they (people in Mosul) would be a little bit more forceful in trying to restore their past way of life but it hasn't been proven to be true,'' said Col. Joseph Anderson, commander of 2nd Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division.

Anderson and other Americans here attributed the improved situation in part to the fact that Mosul suffered less damage to infrastructure than Baghdad and other cities _ both during the war and in the looting that followed.

``The infrastructure is a little bit better here than in other places,'' Staff Sgt. Shawn Witt said. ``It was a lot easier for us to repair whatever damage there was so right away, immediately they saw 'Oh! Americans are doing good things,' whereas in Baghdad it's been a little bit tougher.''

U.S. authorities have also been successful in using the city's ethnic diversity to prevent any one group _ notably Sunni Arabs who are more likely to harbor pro-Saddam sentiments _ from dominating the local establishment.

The new city council, chosen May 5 by 230 electors from the city's main families and ethnic groups, is headed by an Arab with a Kurd as his deputy. An ethnic Assyrian and an ethnic Turk were selected as the mayor's assistants.

``People in Mosul understand that if the occupying forces get out now, the place will fall into chaos,'' said Shamel Hussein, a 35-year-old photographer. But he added: ``If there were a government we wouldn't have let them (the Americans) stay here for a minute longer.''