Editor's note: This is the second of a three-part series.
It was one of Capt. Kenneth "Hutch" Hutchison's first forays into what he calls "the Wild West," a remote stretch of territory his company patrols near the Syrian border in northern Iraq. Already, he was under fire.
The young officer was meeting with about 50 Iraqi mukhtars, or headmen, in the ethnically mixed town of Muhallabiyah, and complaints were flying like bullets: Flour prices were too low. Roads needed repair. Weapons were everywhere.
As the voices swelled, two wizened elders stood up. Nothing, they declared, had changed since the Americans invaded.
"Saddam! Saddam! We die for Saddam!" they chanted defiantly. All eyes turned to Captain Hutchison. With effort, the 6-foot-plus Kansan kept his cool.
"Great," he retorted. "If you see Saddam, tell me where he is!"
Apparently, composure paid off for Hutchison, whose mission includes nudging Muhallabiyah toward self-rule. Several weeks later in July, he helped the town pull off its first election - or "selection" as US commanders here put it. With a show of hands, 54 representatives from Muhallabiyah and surrounding villages voted into office a provisional town council and mayor.
To be sure, the process was far from perfect. An hour before the votes, Hutchison had to scratch off the ballot the names of four top-ranking Baath Party members and usher them out. "That," he says "gave me some heartburn."
Whether running a local council election, or training a civil defense force, soldiers such as Hutchison are on the front lines of US efforts to bring a semblance of self-governance to postwar Iraq. Armed with little more than M-16s and soldierly ingenuity, 20-something GIs are engaged across the country in thousands of daily tug of wars with the Iraqis they are ostensibly mentoring.
Many Iraqis bristle at the American supervision. Proud and often resentful, even some who are supportive of the US-led occupation stress that they are eager to do things independently, their way. Americans, for their part, voice frustration over what they see as a lack of honesty, civic-mindedness, and initiative among some Iraqis they work with.
Nowhere is the grass-roots push and pull of forging a postwar administration more apparent than in northwestern Iraq.
Here, the 18,000-strong 101st Airborne Division commanded by Maj. Gen. David Petraeus has taken the lead in nation building. It has been the first to train a wide range of new Iraqi forces including infantry, border patrols, and security guards. It has organized local elections in a majority of towns. To stimulate business, General Petraeus ordered the reopening of trade across the Syrian border and is facilitating the first major privatization deal outside Baghdad, a multi- million-dollar hotel contract.
The division has often acted in advance of the civilian-run occupation authority in Baghdad, which for months had virtually no presence in Iraq's 18 provinces.
"We've been a bit ahead of the power curve," Petraeus told the Monitor. Some within the US military worry, however, that as Baghdad asserts itself, it threatens to re-impose the top-down bureaucratic structure that stifled initiative under former president Saddam Hussein. Local officials in Mosul and other cities are also pressing for Baghdad to decentralize power and give them a greater say in national affairs.
The 101st was able to plunge into the nitty-gritty work of putting Iraqis back in charge soon after it rolled into Nineveh Province in April. Iraqi commanders surrendered, leaving the region relatively untouched by the war, and attacks on US troops were minimal.
"The bottom line is, you need to have local leadership at all levels, otherwise there is a vacuum," Petraeus says. "We recognized that ... it would help enormously to have an interim government in place to put an Iraqi face on things."
The ethnic complexity, wealth, and fierce local pride of Nineveh's population make the work of transferring power to Iraqis here challenging. Known for its ancient trade routes, wheat, and barley, the border region is dominated by Mosul, a 3,000-year-old city of medieval shrines and walls that is now home to about 2 million people, including Arabs, Armenians, Kurds, and Turkmens.
A primary recruiting ground for senior Iraqi Army and government officials, Mosul had influential ties with the Hussein regime, and several leaders on the US most-wanted list took refuge here. Last week, Hussein's defense minister surrendered after Petraeus personally guaranteed his safety.
Still, some 101st commanders are so confident in the North's progress toward self-sufficiency that they question the need for multinational troops to relieve them when their rotation here ends next February or March.
"We've made such headway.... I don't think it's beyond the realm of possibility that we won't need a coalition in the north," says Col. Joseph Anderson, commander of the division's 2nd Brigade, which oversees Mosul. In the end, much will depend on soldiers like Hutchison.
The Humvee kicks up dust as it passes over barren rolling hills toward Muhallabiyah. Wind blows in where the doors used to be. Hutchison took them off, to "shoot better and get out quicker."
As the town approaches, he scrutinizes two flags flying at the village entrance. One is Iraq's red, white, and black national flag. The other is the light blue banner of the Turkmen Party, newly established here after the war.
"Flags are good, but we've got to make sure that the Turkmen flag is lower than the Iraqi one," Hutchison observes. It is.
Almost everyone in Muhallabiyah speaks Turkish, and they outnumber the predominantly Arabic-speaking people living in surrounding villages. Those demographics underlie the first complaint Hutchison hears about the local election: Only one of the six new town-council members speaks Turkish.
"Our voice and problems will not reach the higher-ups of the government," says Husain Ahmed, a leader of Muhallabiyah's Turkmen Party, sitting in the freshly whitewashed party headquarters. "I want to re-do the elections, to make it three Turkmens and three Arabs."
Down the street at the town hall, another election grievance comes from Khaire Mohammed, the council secretary. It is unfair, he says, that the three largest families have only one member on the council, while a smaller family boasts three, as well as the mayor. He also complained that the mayor had actually campaigned.
"He made announcements. He said, 'I will be mayor, vote for me!'" says Mr. Mohammed.
"That's what politics is like, you have to form a voice," replied Hutchison, taking a swig of orange soda. "There's always the next election."
US military commanders in Mosul admit that the local council "selections" have been ad hoc, and sometimes faulty - but fast. "Do you want to have an 80 percent solution in a month, or wait a year for the 100 percent solution?" says Col. Michael Meese of the 101st. "It's not a perfect process."
The 24-seat city council of Mosul, created in May to represent a wide variety of ethnic and religious groups, tribes, and professions, meets twice a week. Petraeus, who holds a PhD in international relations from Princeton University, calls the meetings "four hours of democracy at its finest" and "Mosul's answer to the Federalist Papers."
Others describe the council as functioning but bitterly divisive, indecisive, and prone to creating superfluous committees. "The council hasn't voted on squat yet," said Colonel Anderson before one meeting in late July. He did not relish attending. "We get ambushed," he said. "By the end, you have a splitting headache and want to go jump off the bridge" into the Tigris River, he says.
As for Muhallabiyah, when Hutchison visited recently, he learned the council had an agenda but had not met since the election. Just then, a tractor driver in a gray jacket and white turban poked his head into the room to ask the Army captain about payment for work. Hutchison responded without missing a beat: "It sounds like a town-council job to me."
It was dusk when a joint US-Iraqi foot patrol set out for a hostile neighborhood of Mosul. Days earlier, residents had taken paint donated to spruce up a school and used it to smear anti-American slogans on the walls.
Within a few blocks, youths started hurling rocks at the patrol. Repeatedly, Iraqi soldiers rushed at them with arms raised. But an American lieutenant called them back. "They really beat the crap out of their kids in this country, so I have to rein in these guys," says Lt. Brian Patterson of St. Louis, Mo., as a stone pings off a lamppost.
Later, Lieutenant Patterson prodded the Iraqi recruits forward. "Spread out more!" he said in a hushed voice as the squad turned down another dim street.
One of the recruits is Staff Sgt. Rakad Mijbil Rakad, who served for 17 years in the Iraqi Army and quit only in mid-April when his unit surrendered. He says he was fed up with the Iraqi Army, its stale bread, bribery, and abuse.
"I lived all my life with wars, from the [1980-88] Iran-Iraq War until now," said the Mosul native and father of seven. "It was just war, with no results," he said bitterly. "The Iraqi government destroyed the Army."
Nationwide, a total of 20,000 Iraqis like Sergeant Rakad have signed up for new military units being formed by the US-led coalition with the ultimate goal of taking over Iraq's defense. Forces in progress include: a 30,000 to 40,000-strong New Iraqi Army (NIA) with three infantry divisions; a 25,000-man border police force; and, most urgently, a 15,000-strong militia named the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps (ICDC). One 800-soldier ICDC battalion is planned for each of Iraq's 18 provinces to help coalition forces stabilize the country.
In northwestern Iraq, about 500 new Iraqi border guards are manning checkpoints and conducting patrols in pickup trucks along the Syrian and Iranian borders. In addition, the 101st Division has trained more than 600 Iraqis, both Arabs and Kurds, for security forces that will feed the new Army and militia.
While there is no lack of recruits, such forces require solid leadership that can help break old habits, US officials say.
Lt. Christopher Wood took charge in Mosul in May of a platoon of 30 Iraqi soldiers who he says had no concept of US military conduct. To them, detaining someone meant beating them. Weapons fire was often indiscriminate. "We'd show them how to target, and they'd say 'No, you just spray," Lieutenant Wood says.
On the other extreme, the Iraqis were "very sloppy with cleaning their weapons." On patrols, they quickly grew bored, and began talking and taking cigarette breaks.
Still, Wood learned he could not single out Iraqis for criticism as he would American soldiers. Upbraiding them provoked intense embarrassment and hurt pride. Instead, he started to make up "bedtime stories" - fictitious incidents about, say, a soldier killed while chatting during a night patrol - to drive home his points. "They caught on, and would draw the right conclusions."
Today, Wood says his platoon has gone from "a hodgepodge, rag-tag group to a fairly efficient team of soldiers." He trusts them enough to patrol with them alone. They also visit mosques incognito to gather intelligence.
Rakad, although a veteran officer, doesn't mind taking orders from a young US lieutenant. "Americans treat their soldiers well, and they respect our religious beliefs, also," he says. Despite death threats and accusations of betrayal from Iraqi citizens, he says he will continue to cooperate with Americans and defend them if necessary.
Still, doubts linger. US soldiers question to what extent Iraqis are buying into their own future. For their part, Iraqi soldiers wonder how committed the US will be in the long run to their nation's security.
"If it wasn't for the American Army, Iraq would be very bad. The strong would eat the weak," says Rakad. He hopes US forces will stay one or two years.
After that, he says, "the one to take their place should be me."
• Tomorrow: Coalition troops fight to stabilize central Iraq's "Sunni triangle."