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Soldiers grapple with war, peace

By WES ALLISON, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 14, 2003

HILLAH, Iraq -- Thursday afternoon, American forces here were simultaneously directing a helicopter attack against enemy fighters, meeting with local tribal leaders, and planning to distribute food to a hungry and war-weary citizenry.

Now that Baghdad has fallen, U.S. troops in Iraq find themselves trying to navigate the dangerous netherworld between war and peace, a work glove on one hand, a gun in the other.

That means helping restore water and electric services and providing security from looters, while continuing to dig at pockets of armed fighters and destroy massive stockpiles of enemy mortars, rockets and grenades.

"I'm going to be the mayor, I'm going to be the U.N. relief guy and I'm going to be fighting, 24 hours a day," said Lt. Col. Chris Hughes, commander of the 2nd Battalion, 327th Infantry of the 101st Airborne, assigned to Hillah for at least the next two weeks.

"To me, this is the most difficult part of the mission. If we don't do it right, it turns into Mogadishu," Hughes said, referring to the American peacekeeping mission in Somalia that ended in chaos and the deaths of U.S. soldiers at the hands of angry mobs.

"If we do it right, everyone comes home safe."

The three battalions of the 1st Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division are occupying three major cities in southern Iraq: Najaf, Karbala and Hillah.

The Americans took them all by force, overwhelming Iraqi army regulars and Islamic militants with attack helicopters, artillery and gun trucks. By the time the infantry units marched into the towns, most had fled, died or blended into the local population.

The 1st Brigade and its 3,000 soldiers have now been attached to the 82nd Airborne, which will oversee peacekeeping in this part of Iraq. But Gen. David Petraeus, commander of the 101st Airborne, stopped short of declaring a peacekeeping mission yet, noting his soldiers fought several small battles last week.

"We'd love to see it turn that way, but we're still prepared to fight anybody who stands in our way," Petraeus said.

For the 18- to 24-year-old soldier pulling security at an intersection or guarding one of the battalions' three camps, the most difficult task in the weeks to come will be determining who is dangerous and who is not.

Except for a firefight Wednesday night in Hillah and sporadic small-arms fire there Thursday, the troops of 2nd Battalion, 327th Infantry -- which calls itself No Slack -- have seen virtually no action since they took the city of Najaf almost two weeks ago.

But commanders say armed fighters remain. Without an active war, some fear the men may become complacent, leaving them vulnerable to a militant who fires a rocket-propelled grenade into a truckload of troops, or lobs a grenade into a crowd, or shoots a soldier who sheds his flak vest and helmet.

Sgt. 1st Class Dan Maloney, 40, a platoon sergeant from Boston, said peacekeeping can be dangerous.

"If this is all you do, you forget why we're here," he said. "It feels like another field exercise."

Hillah is the site of the ancient city of Babylon, and the ruins lie just north of town by the Euphrates River. The city has a population of about 400,000 and appears neither prosperous nor destitute, with modest brick homes and palm trees to the north and light industry and desert to the south.

The 2nd Battalion of the 327th Infantry arrived Monday and Tuesday and spent the past week working its way through the city, searching crumbling schools, a municipal vehicle depot, government buildings and rows of warehouses.

Soldiers had been warned to expect heavy resistance from Iraqi regulars and Islamic militants, but most have yet to fire a shot.

By Wednesday, local residents were emerging to greet their new guests. By Friday, ubiquitous Saddam Hussein murals had been sprayed with graffiti or torn down, and Hillah was bustling.

Donkey carts shared the roads with rusted, 1980s Japanese pickup trucks and Russian-made Volgas, their mufflers long gone. The small roadside vegetable stands reopened, selling red, plum-sized tomatoes next to clumps of strong, fresh garlic and bunches of herbs. Vendors tried to peddle cigarettes to soldiers for $1 per pack.

Alongside signs of normalcy, however, linger the signs of war.

Two Air Force F-16 jets roared low overhead late Friday afternoon, a startling reminder to any remaining fighters that "we're here, and we can still reach out and touch them at any time," said Maj. Pete Rooks, the 2nd Battalion's executive officer.

No Slack started Friday morning with 25 weapons sites. Even after destroying several, by day's end the count had grown to 29, and two more had been looted before the combat engineers could get to them.

A large yellow dump truck the Americans had commandeered from a fedayeen depot to haul troops and equipment was stolen. With "U.S. Army" and "No Slack" painted on the side, officers worry terrorists may try to use it to enter an American camp.

Helicopters were searching for it Friday and Saturday.

And even without U.S. air and artillery attacks, which destroyed several schools and businesses and cratered several roads, it quickly became clear that Hillah has a long way to go.

Hussein's Baath Party had governed all aspects of Iraqi life, from food rations to work permits to security to the criminal justice system. That system is now defunct, and there is nothing to take its place.

Schools haven't been open for years, having served primarily as holding areas for weapons and hideouts for fighters.

Municipal services, like garbage collection, disappeared when the Baath Party leaders left town last month, and fleeing militants stopped the local power and water service.

Thursday night, Hughes and Special Forces operatives met for three hours with 26 tribal elders and local businessmen. They established a 12-man council and three committees, which met Friday to organize a police force, medical services and utilities.

A U.S. Army officer or senior noncommissioned officer will serve on each.

The Baath Party ran the country, and the Americans must count on party members to help rebuild it, too, just as the Allies relied on Nazi Party officials to help rebuild Germany after World War II.

"There's still bad guys in the city, but the 101st has to move on," said Maj. Sam Sellers, an Army reservist and lobbyist from Little Rock, Ark., who commands the civil affairs unit traveling with 2nd Battalion.

"We have dual roles, providing security, searching for and destroying any remaining bad guys, while we try to get the good guys back to work."

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