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The Nation-Builders: Soldiers and Diplomats

Political and social reality in Iraq, like any country, is far from simple. No one knows this better than the American military commanders who have been based in places like Mosul, Kirkuk, and Tikrit, and who have been handed the job of not only fighting a tenacious guerrilla insurgency but also sorting out the complex and potentially explosive relations between Iraq's ethnic and sectarian groups. Here are excerpts from FRONTLINE's interviews with Maj. Gen. Raymond Odierno in Tikrit, Col. William Mayville in Kirkuk, and Maj. Gen. David Petraeus in Mosul.

Maj. Gen. Raymond Odierno
Commander of the U.S. Army's 4th Infantry Division, headquartered outside Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit.

photo of odierno
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One of the other problems you face is that you're trying to push forward with civil affairs in some areas that are very dangerous, where NGOs won't go, where the U.N. won't go, where USAID won't go. How do you convince the people who are out here saying, "It won't be secure here until you fix it up," and you can't fix it up until it's secure?

Yes, it is a chicken-and-egg argument. ... When I talk security, there's four pieces to security: There's a military piece that's clearly ours. That means we have to defeat the former regime loyalists. We have to develop a police force, a civil defense corps, and an army that can help protect this and make it a safe place. That's one piece of it.

But what also contributes to a safe place is infrastructure improvement. So you've got to improve the infrastructure. You've got to make sure they have basic services, which I think we've done. The services now are probably better than they have been before the war, and they continue to get better.

You've got to have governance. That's the third piece. You've got to have local leaders, you've got to have provincial leaders, you've got to have a rule of law. You've got to have a judiciary set up. That's the third piece.

The fourth is an economic development plan, which is long term. ... All of that equates to security. So what's frustrating is when you say, "You've got to have military security first." That is not the only solution. It's a combination of all four of those things that I just talked about. So we have to work together to make this happen.

We have done 1,500 projects in my area of operation, and as far as I know, no one has been injured or killed doing these 1,500 projects that we funded under our commanders' programs. And we let out the contractors. So we have to convince NGOs to come in here. "We will help you with your protection, and then you can do the same thing." ...

So it's going to take some brave people to come in here, working with us. Non-governmental organizations and international organizations don't necessarily always like to work with the American military, because they like their independence, and I understand that. But I think there's going to be a time here, at least in the beginning, where they have to trust us a bit to provide some security so they can get established and do their jobs. Then, as it gets better, they can then become more independent. ...

I talked to a group of men in Thuluya. They told me there were no projects going on. ... What should I believe?

Yes, well, the bottom line is I could give you a list of about 40 projects that have been done in Thuluya.

So why this whining -- or whatever you want to call it -- or at least their honest perception that there's nothing going on?

I would say first, can we do more? Absolutely. Is there more that has to be done? Yes. But the interesting piece about this is we have to do this together. It's not just the American force or coalition forces doing this. They've got to help us do this. Again, it goes back to the Stalinist society, where government does everything for you. We've got to change the mindset where we just don't do everything for you; it's us working together doing these things together, and you have to help us do this. You have to help us provide security so we can do more projects in Thuluya. ...

See, I think some of the problem is they expect the United States to come in, and [we] would throw billions of dollars, and in six months this country would be like Germany is today. It's an unrealistic expectation.

Well, we did put a man on the moon.

Yes, but it's an unrealistic -- I mean, look how long it took us to rebuild Germany. It was not six months. ...

[The perception back home is that] maybe the resistance can really cripple this effort and--

But again, people don't understand. See, here's the problem. The bottom line is, everybody who comes over here, they can't believe what it's like here, because they think it's absolutely chaos based on reports they're getting at home. ... Then you come back here, and when people are on the ground, they realize it's not chaos. It's not the best place in the world, but it's not chaos. ...

If you go downtown Kirkuk, there's hundreds of thousands of people in there going to the markets. If you go down to Tikrit, it's 400 percent better now -- the markets -- than they were six months ago. There's many more businesses. In Thuluya, eight car dealerships have opened up since we went in there and did that operation.

So they can tell you all they want about things not moving forward. ... Things are moving forward, and things are much better than it appears.


Col. William Mayville
Commander of the U.S. Army's 173rd Airborne Brigade, he was based in Kirkuk from April 2003 until February 2004.

photo of mayville
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[Is there the potential here for civil war?]

There's a big risk of civil war here. ... Civil war, or at least civil unrest, with very, very violent consequences. ... But there's also the possibly of stability. It is this very complex multiethnic reality that is also the source of its strength in the future, if we can build the bridges; if we can build communities of communities; if we can find common language, and we can find guarantors of everyone's rights. I think that there is the possibility of long-term stability here. ...

It's exhausting work. ... And you've got people shooting at you while you're trying to stitch things together.

Yes. Yes. You have to put those in its place, and not bring it to the table. You treat it for what it is, you deal with it, and you deal with it very, very harshly. You don't compromise in that area. Military operations are non-negotiable. We are willing to be stretched and to listen, to expand, and to explore, so long as it's peaceful. But if it's not peaceful, then we will absolutely go at it as hard as we can. And we do. ...

[Kurdish representatives have said to you], "You come in here with your American ideas, and you try to impose American standards. You don't understand us."

Right. That is a tactic I heard used often, not only with the Kurds, but with the different Arab groups and different groups within the community. At this point, I would offer that we probably understand a lot more than they give us credit for, although no one can replace the experience that these people have had. I mean, truly, they have an understanding of their land, and their people, and their issues.

What all communities -- including the Kurds -- are having a difficult time with is new freedoms, and a new way of life in a democratic society. ... In that area, there's a lot of leadership that we can give, and a lot of expertise that we can lend.

The principal issue that you saw in that discussion, though, that I had with them, was one of the rule of law and the guaranteeing of rights. The thing that I'm offering to them is that, if you want to guarantee the rights of your community, then you first have to go out and ensure that those rights are extended to all the communities. You establish the rule of law first. Once we've established this rule of law, then we can go back into it and revisit the things that we need to revisit, and redress issues and problems of the past. But you can't do that, and have a forward-looking strategy, if you don't first establish that we are a society or a community that is based on the rule of law. ...

How well does Washington, or even Baghdad, understand what you're facing here in Kirkuk?

My feeling is, first off, let me say, no one can possibly hope to appreciate the complexity of Kirkuk until you've been here and you've spent as much time as we have had the privilege of spending here. So in some ways, that's a little bit unfair ... being here for almost a year, and then say, "How does Baghdad, or ... some of our folks in Washington, D.C., understand that?" It's very, very complex. ...

What are the consequences of failure here?

Well, it's funny. I keep asking myself, what is success? I haven't really tried to delve into what is failure, because on any given day, that which is not success is failure.

I think what we need to do -- let me answer the question this way. We have to break even. The model that I have in my head is still being defined. I'm very careful not to bring preconceived notions of what I think the standard of living should be, for what the final solution should be politically. Ultimately, it has to be defined by the Iraqi people, and by the citizens of Kirkuk.

What I have to do every day is find the break-even point and get to it, and that's really hard. The consequences of not getting to break-even, well -- it's emotional for me, because I now have an emotional stake, and so it's very hard not to care. But this is a place that could unravel Iraq. This is a place that could begin a spiral, a downward spiral to Iraq. ...

Colonel, why do you care about this place so much?

Well, part of it is just the humanity that's here. ... You're gripped by what's here, and you can't help -- as an American, and as someone from the West who's been blessed with so many things -- not to want to see this place better. You don't want to make it American. You don't want to hold it to a standard that they don't define. But if you can lend a hand, you certainly want to be there for them. It is very, very difficult to reconcile life, and the privileged life that I've had as an American -- that my family enjoys, the freedoms we enjoy and the things sometimes I took for granted -- and to see it here and say, "These guys got to fight for everything I take for granted." So it's easy to get emotionally attached here. ...

A viewer of this program is going to take a look at you and wonder how you can go to city council meetings in the morning and be running politics and instructing the community on democracy and its evolution, and be going out at night -- you'll be up most of tonight running a military operation. ...


And [they'll] say that your plate is too full, that the military has been handed too much.

I don't know what better model there is, though. What happened to the State Department and the United Nations? Well, they're here, but they're not here in quite the right numbers that I think people would have thought. That's not a comment. That's not judgment. That's just what is.

But has the military taken on too much? Not that you're not capable, not that you're not smart enough. But are you being handed the bag ... because so many other people have copped out? The United Nations has gone out. The Red Cross has left. So much has now fallen to you and to civil affairs, and it's a tremendous burden. Or am I off?

I think it's kind of like you get in a situation, and you suddenly find a mountain that you've got to negotiate to get to your objective. Does the military say, "Oh, I'm sorry, we don't do mountains?" You know, "We do streams, we do valleys, we do jungles. We just don't do mountains?"

The mountains here are the social and political issues that we're facing. The military is, if it is nothing else, an adaptive force. We have adapted to the terrain to accomplish the missions that we have. So I think what you have here is a morphing of an organization, and an application of what its capabilities are in a new spectrum; but one that ultimately gets to accomplishing a very military tradition, an objective -- which is stability and security.

It's a larger role than most Americans perceive the military to be responsible for.

Yes. But it is something that the military has been doing for quite some time. We've been doing it in the Balkans. We did it in Haiti. We do it in Central America. We're doing it all over the world. So it's not as foreign to us as people might think. ...

Are you hopeful?

I am. But I was born that way. ...

But success is not guaranteed.

No. I think we have to be careful with what we define as success. I think that is a struggle in and of itself, and we've got to say, "Success for who? Success for the Iraqi people." Ultimately, success is what they identify and they define, and our job is to help them get there.


Maj. Gen. David Petraeus
Commanding General of the U.S. Army's 101st Airborne Division, he was based in Mosul from April 2003 until February 2004.

photo of petraeus
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What experience were you able to bring to the table that helped you go beyond the military functions to really the standing up of a system of government, et cetera?

Well, first of all, a lot of our commanders, a lot of our soldiers, have done quite a bit of this stuff before. The brigade commander in the city, for example ... was the commander of the first battalion that went into Kosovo. He also was a company commander in Panama. Another brigade commander just came back from Afghanistan with his brigade. An entire brigade of the division was deployed in Kosovo not long before.

And you yourself?

I spent a year in Bosnia up until last summer. So I literally just got back from spending a year doing this. Also, some years back, in Haiti with the U.N. as the operations officer for that mission as well.

So that was a useful template?

Oh, they were very, very helpful, yes. Because we're wrestling with a whole gamut of issues there as well. This stuff is not foreign to us. ...

So what's going through your head in those first days that you get in here? What are you telling yourself that you need to do?

The first thing that we needed to do was re-establish some degree of security and start rebuilding respect for the law -- and a culture, if you will, of law and order -- because that had totally broken down. There were private armies roaming the streets. There were political leaders who were proclaiming themselves to be the governor and mayor and all the other officials. All the government buildings had been looted. The looting was still continuing, and basic law-and-order policing was just non-existent. So that was the very first job. ...

Then we realized that, in addition to just getting basic services restored and getting businesses, shops, schools and universities re-opened, the other thing that we needed to address was this incredible power vacuum that existed really all the way from Baghdad down to the district and sub-district level. So we took that on.

Of course, this is before the CPA was even established in Baghdad and Ambassador Bremer arrived, later in May. In late April, we realized we had to do something about that. There were two choices. We could either fill the vacuum completely ourselves -- in which case, over time, it would be increasingly more different to extricate ourselves from running everything. Or we could start the process of getting Iraqis involved in self-government and filling that vacuum.

The sooner you get an Iraqi face on things, the better off you are. So we started down the road of getting an election going. We did that on May 5, elected a province council here in Nineveh province. That, in turn, elected the province governor. Frankly, we've been very, very fortunate in those individuals, the skills that they brought, the representation of the population of Nineveh province and what they've done for the new Iraq. ...

We are trying to keep a country together, keep a region together, and start building toward this new Iraq. Our governor, who has every reason to be absolutely bloodthirsty in his approach to the former Baathists -- given that, again, the regime killed his brother and his cousin ... and he himself was forcibly retired from the military after being wounded six times, I might add, in the service of his country. This was the reward for that great service. He actually called together on his own the former Baathists in Mosul and Nineveh province. ... He sat them down and said, "Look, you need to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. If you are part of the problem, of course, over time, police [and] coalition forces are going to hunt you down anyway. But in the meantime, if you truly want to see a better Iraq, then support -- or at the very least, do not oppose."

So if he can have that approach, he who is so injured, whose family paid such a huge price for what they did in the past -- I would think that others would be able to do the same. ...

There's a lot of concern that after the United States, after the coalition leaves this country, that no amount of nation-building, if you will, can stand this place up on its own -- that once the United States coalition leaves, there's going to be trouble in Iraq.

I think we have to make sure that before we leave there is a stable, self-sustaining government and economy and all the other pieces in place, so that that does not happen. ...

There's a lot of reason for optimism here in the north. We think that it can really continue to show what success can look like -- as long as the resources keep flowing in here. I have no doubt that they will. ...

We're also a target, because if the enemy sees this as an example of success, then of course they're going to want to take it on. ... Most recently, starting about a month or so ago, we saw a sustained spike of enemy activity. We've lost a number of soldiers during that time, had a number of others wounded. ... This is going to require a great deal of patience, determination and just sheer fortitude. ...

It strikes me that the military comes at this from a very practical ... a very non-ideological point of view. When you sit in Washington, people tend to read the [Washington] Post and the [New York] Times, and they see this war in terms of conflicting ideologies, whereas you guys take a very different approach. ...

Well, we're not sitting in Washington reading the Post and The New York Times. We're just trying to get the cattle to Cheyenne. We're trying to accomplish the mission that we've been given -- which is to maintain a safe and secure environment, and to foster the rebuilding of basic services, governmental infrastructure, and so forth. We've done a lot of discovery learning. But this stuff is not rocket science. This is basically all about hard work, common sense, and just keeping your nose to the grindstone and dragging on through a variety of challenges, through tough times -- and occasionally through good times.

Tough times. Right at the end of the briefing where I sat in, you had some news.


Tell me about it.

Well, that's about the toughest time we've had in Iraq. We lost 17 wonderful Screaming Eagles that night -- two helicopters. ... We take every casualty personally, very deeply personally. These are our soldiers. This is like losing a member of the family. ...

One of our great troopers here, in fact, in the headquarters, told me the next morning, he said, "You know, we've got 17 additional reasons to get this thing right." And he's absolutely correct.

There's no assurance, though, is there, that we can get it right? We can do everything right, we can do everything correctly, but the task could conceivably be impossible.

We won't accept that. I mean, we're not over here working our fingers to the bone, fighting and dying, with the idea that this task is beyond us. We are over here with the idea that it can be accomplished -- that we have made incredible progress, as you have seen, and that what we have to do is continue to prevail and to persist and to work very, very hard at this.



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posted february 12, 2004

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