April 13, 2003

KIRKUK, Iraq--The war's over. Let the nation-building begin.

I'm typing this in a plush, air-conditioned conference room on the second floor of a ransacked compound that was the seat of Saddam's municipal government here in this ethnic stew-pot of a city. A group of paratroopers from the 173rd Brigade's Able Company occupied the place after it was looted so they can be visible to the citizenry. Today, several M-1 Abrams tanks drove up and parked outside, for the same reason.

In front of me, two men wearing traditional Arab headdresses are sitting around a coffee table with an intelligence officer. I canít hear the translation of what they are saying, but I'm told one of them was a driver for a cousin of Saddam Hussein, and he is telling the Americans where they can find Iraqi generals and other members of the Baathist regime who have fled to points unknown. I'll let you know how that turns out.

I didn't see a shot fired in this war, but I have a front row seat on what's facing the U.S. military as it tries to facilitate a new government in this beaten, battered nation.

So far, it hasnít been pretty, but it hasn't been a disaster, either. The Americans are muddling through. Yet there seem to be a lot of risks ahead.

At the far end of the room are a large, ornate desk and a plush leather chair. Capt. Eric Baus, a 30-year-old company commander from Collingswood, N.J., has been sitting in the desk most of the day, receiving visitors. One of his soldiers playfully taped a sign on the desk that said "Mayor of Kirkuk."

That became the running joke of the day, and it wasn't far off.

Baus, who jumps out of airplanes for a living, spent the morning trying to find Kurdish engineers who could get the city's basic services up and running. The water system can't work without electricity, and the power grid can't work without the natural gas plant, and that requires the oil refinery to be up and running. All have been damaged in recent days by looters and vandals, who tore through the city after Iraqi soldiers frantically fled last week.

Some of the engineers that used to work at those plants showed up here today, and Baus sat down with them to come up with a plan. He told them to go to the installations and assess the damage, and the report back tomorrow.

"Two months ago, I couldn't even get my light bulbs changed in Vicenza," Baus marveled. "Now I'm trying to turn on the power in an Iraqi city."

Baus had some successes, but he also encountered some bumps. His is not the only group of soldiers in the building; there are also some Special Forces and Civil Affairs officers, who work for different bosses, and have their own ideas about what needs to be done in Kirkuk. They have more expertise in the region and have access to more resources, but they haven't been coordinating with the paratroopers, and that has caused problems.

The lack of communication created a sticky situation today when Baus decided he was going to clear out some officials of one Kurdish faction, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, who had been working out of an office downstairs. Baus and his bosses felt it was inappropriate that the center of municipal government be seen as a PUK building, even if the PUK is the most powerful faction in town. The PUK's rival, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, sent an emissary to see Baus today who expressed displeasure over the situation. Civilians have been coming up to the paratroopers and telling them to get rid of all the peshmerga, PUK and KDP alike. In the afternoon, a group of Turkman conducted a noisy march past Baus's window, waving Turkish flags.

"I'm going to kick them out of the building," Baus told 3rd Platoon Lt. Kenji Price. "[KDP leader Massoud] Barzani's guy is a little perturbed that this is turning into a PUK hangout. I told him I'm not taking sides."

The young paratroopers began evicting PUK security officers. But then a Special Forces officer informed Baus and his boss, Lt. Col. Dominic Caraccilo (who arrived just as this was happening) that a meeting of various ethnic leaders had been scheduled in the building.

Maj. Ken Torvl told them that they should let the PUK control the building.

"So you want us tied to the PUK?" Caraccilo asked incredulously.

"On this site, yessir," he replied.

A few minutes later, Torvl noticed me taking notes, and he said: "Excuse me, are you a reporter?" I answered yes, and he said, "Please leave!" Before I could tell him that I was embedded here (and don't recall signing up to take orders from him), he walked away in a huff. Caraccilo and Baus laughed about it later.

A few minutes later, I chatted with a less uptight Special Forces major, who declined to be named but explained that his folks were working with the different factions all over the city, not just the PUK.

"It's actually going pretty well," he said.

But the situation is precarious. Just 20 minutes ago, a young boy who was marching in the Turkmen demonstration was hit by a car and killed. The Turkmen were saying that Kurds did it intentionally. The paratroopers braced themselves for a riot, but it didnít happen. This time.

• 

The folks who run this web site tell me I've received a lot of e-mails from relatives of troops in the 173rd, asking me to pass on messages. Unfortunately, I canít do that, because my internet connection is too slow to read large volumes of e-mail, and even if I could I wouldn't have time. I do tell the soldiers whenever I can that I get a lot of messages in support of them. Hereís how to send snail mail to the paratroopers:


Name

Platoon, Company, Battalion

173d ABN BDE

APO AE 09347


But there's a problem: For reasons no one has explained, these guys are still not receiving mail, three weeks after they arrived in Iraq. Even though planes fly in and out of their air base every day. This to me seems ridiculous bordering on scandalous. Several of the troopers have asked me to write about it, and to urge their relatives to call whoever they think could change the situation - from members of Congress to the brigade staff remaining in Vicenza. They go without showers, hot food, phone calls home and free time. The least the Army could do is deliver them a letter from home once in a while.