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Success story in Iraq In Kirkuk, U.S. soldiers make things happen By Ken Dilanian Inquirer Staff Writer
KIRKUK, Iraq - When they realized that the newly trained local police force desperately needed walkie-talkies, the U.S. troops who patrol Iraq's fourth-largest city didn't wait for civilian bureaucrats to buy them, as have their Baghdad counterparts.
The soldiers in Kirkuk found a dealer and ordered the radios with their emergency funds. They did the same with weapons, vehicles and office furniture.
Today, while many once-looted police stations in Baghdad remain sparsely furnished shells, the ones in Kirkuk, which also were gutted, are freshly painted and sparkling with renovations - including air conditioners, exercise equipment and cafeterias. And while police in the capital struggle with shortages, Kirkuk's force is among the best equipped in the country.
"Security was our top priority, so we couldn't wait," said Col. William Mayville, commander of the 173d Airborne Brigade, the main ground force in Kirkuk. "We're a couple of chapters ahead of the rest of Iraq on a lot of this stuff."
Kirkuk, a multiethnic city of Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen and Assyrians that is 150 miles north of the capital, may be the U.S. military's greatest Iraq success story. Attacks on soldiers are unusual, violent crime is low, and Iraqis have worked with Americans to restore basic services to prewar levels.
The paratroopers in Kirkuk, like those in Mosul, the other major northern city, have thrown themselves into nation-building, and they have outpaced the rest of Iraq in turning over local government, security and reconstruction tasks to Iraqis.
That effort is aided by the peaceful environment, partly a result of the city's geography and ethnic balance, and the 173d Airborne's quick moves to establish control after the war. Another big factor is that there is less coalition bureaucracy; soldiers can act on the spot to solve problems.
In Kirkuk, a city of one million, the brigade of 3,000 soldiers is the sole military presence, compared with 37,000 troops in Baghdad, with a population of about five million. The 173d parachuted into northern Iraq in March and was fixing things for a month before L. Paul Bremer, the top U.S. administrator in Iraq, or Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the military commander, set foot in the country.
Although it provides money, Bremer's Baghdad-based Coalition Provisional Authority has no U.S. staff in Kirkuk. And unlike every other brigade commander in Iraq, Mayville does not really work for a general, because the 173d, based in Vicenza, Italy, is not part of a division. (It is "attached" to the Fourth Infantry Division, which has its hands full in Tikrit and the surrounding "Sunni triangle," the birthplace of Saddam Hussein.)
That autonomy has allowed Mayville and his senior commanders to work their will on every aspect of civic life, including politics, infrastructure, education and trash collection.
"Sometimes it seems like the [civilian authority in Baghdad] is looking for something that fits into their 30-year plan," said Maj. Andy Rohling, a battalion operations officer. "We're looking for something that will fix the problem right away."
One team of soldiers helped form a multiethnic local government, headed by a Kurdish mayor with Arab and Turkmen deputies who were elected by 300 community leaders. Another team is tackling water, sewer, electricity, and economic-development projects. Both groups work each day in Kirkuk's government center, where they are vastly outnumbered by Iraqi employees.
"Each one of my guys is matched up with a local government official," said Maj. Brian Maddox, a tank officer who leads what the brigade calls Task Force Civil. "Our motto around here is to put an Iraqi between us and the problem."
The only parallel in Iraq is nearby Mosul, another multiethnic city, where the 101st Airborne Division has used a similar approach with good results. The northern cities of Irbil and Sulaymaniyah are also doing well, but that is less surprising because they are part of the Kurdish enclave that was kept out of Hussein's reach after the 1991 Persian Gulf War by a U.S.-enforced no-fly zone.
The biggest threat to stability in Kirkuk is ethnic tension, which soldiers spend their days trying to defuse. Sometimes the tensions flare into violence, as on May 17 when soldiers say they shot and killed more than a dozen armed Arab rioters. Most recently, the 173d has begun a campaign to establish ethnic balance on the police force and to force Kurds to stop flying the Kurdistan flag on public buildings.
Those actions drew protests, but Kirkuk remains one of the few places in Iraq where questions about American soldiers draw mainly positive responses from people, including Arabs who are more predisposed than Kurds or Turkmen to dislike the U.S. occupation.
"They are dealing with people in a good way," said Fatah Mohammed, 47, an unemployed Arab.
"We love the Americans here," said Mustafa Adna, 18, a Turkmen fruit vendor. "They have done many good things. Kirkuk is a stable city."
There are many factors that have made Kirkuk more hospitable to U.S. troops than Baghdad and other cities in the Sunni triangle. Although the city is 40 percent Arab, the rest of the population is made up of ethnic groups who were oppressed by Hussein and predisposed to see U.S. forces as liberators.
Even Kirkuk's Arabs felt neglected by the old regime, so residents have a stake in the new order. Kirkuk is home to one of Iraq's two state-owned oil companies, which means its residents include a large number of well-educated bureaucrats. And the city fell with scarcely a shot fired after its Iraqi army defenders melted away.
The 173d, which had parachuted into a northern valley weeks before, entered the city April 11. Within two weeks, some electricity and water service had been restored to most of the city. By contrast, the Third Infantry Division was still mopping up resistance in Baghdad well into May, and it eventually left, replaced by the First Armored Division.
To establish order in Kirkuk, the 173d immediately kicked out the Kurdish militias that had streamed in and began a concerted campaign to rid the city of weapons. The paratroopers seized them at traffic checkpoints and conducted a series of raids.
Yet even as they were hunting enemies, commanders in Kirkuk also did something unheard of in most of the rest of Iraq: They assigned soldiers to live in houses in the city. Three rifle companies of paratroopers live in former Baathist-owned mansions.
The houses are fortified with sandbags and concertina wire, but they are within shouting distance of neighbors, who regularly bring meals. At C Company's house the other day, soldiers played soccer with an Iraqi police team (the Iraqis won, 1-0) and then hosted a barbecue.
The 173d has seen its share of hostilities, in part because it also patrols Sunni Arab towns south of Kirkuk. Last week, in a rare attack in Kirkuk itself, the brigade lost its second soldier killed in action - two others were wounded - when a convoy was ambushed by guerrillas firing rocket-propelled grenades.
Still, soldiers of the 173d regularly eat and shop in local establishments and interact with residents.
By contrast, for example, a battalion of the 82d Airborne based in Mahmudiyah, south of Baghdad, does not allow its troops to buy so much as a can of soda outside the troops' walled and heavily guarded compound.
The 173d's approach is riskier. The houses have been attacked occasionally with rocket-propelled grenades, and one soldier lost his legs in such an attack. But the risk brings rewards, said Lt. Col. Dominic Caraccilo, who commands the Second Battalion, 503d Infantry, which lives in the city. Soldiers know their neighborhoods intimately and regularly get good tips about potential problems.
On Sept. 22, one such tip led to the arrest of some weapons dealers.
"I just don't understand how you could hold yourself out as doing nation-building and not live among the people," Caraccilo said.
-------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Contact staff writer Ken Dilanian at 215-854-2405 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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