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Iraq Journals

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Tuesday, October 7

Soldiers help get Iraq back in business

By Gina Cavallaro | Army Times

AYYARAH, Iraq - An oil refinery bombed during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s belched to life last month after 17 years in disrepair.

Two days later, Iraqi refinery workers clad in bright red, blue and yellow coveralls jumped into action when the U.S. Army colonel inspecting progress at the plant asked them to demonstrate their firefighting skills.

The refinery workers scrambled to a shiny new red pumper truck and, with three men on a hose, sprayed a white powdered flame suppressant.

"Your team knew what to do,'' Col. Frederick Hodges, commander of 1st Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division, told the beaming plant manager.

Soon the manager, Hodges and his staff were sitting down to a meal of chicken and lamb.

The refinery's return to full operation is important to the local economy. It's also a key part of a coalition strategy to rebuild Iraq's neglected, dilapidated oil-production infrastructure and turn the world's second-largest holding of proven crude reserves - 112 billion barrels - into cash to rebuild the country.

For the 101st, the refinery restoration is one of more than 3,200 projects the division has undertaken in northern Iraq. The projects are as much about fixing the crippled infrastructure and boosting a weak economy as they are about empowering the Iraqis to take control of their future.

Relationships are being built, trust established - deal by deal, meal by meal.

"The long-term key to success and eventual departure of the coalition forces is the establishment of a professional and competent police, civil defense and other security forces directed by representative governmental authorities,'' said Maj. Gen. David H. Petraeus, commanding general of the 101st.

The division has spent close to $24 million of the former government's money on reconstruction, though that money is running out.

More than 10,000 Iraqis are on the payroll in various security jobs, Petraeus said. An interim government elected May 5, comprising 270 delegates from all the region's ethnic, tribal and religious groups, has convened.

"There is tremendous momentum up here,'' Petraeus said.

His area of responsibility here spans an area roughly equal to that between the cities of New York, Boston and Philadelphia and includes a population of about 8 million.

In a typical day, brigade, battalion and company commanders cover hundreds of miles by ground and air, supervising thousands of projects.

On a recent, unannounced visit to the North State Cement Company in Hammam al-Alil, Hodges sits down to tea with the manager. Hodges promises parts and money to get the fledgling plant up to full capacity. He also offers the expertise of Lt. James French, 32, a Reserve engineer from Charlie Company, 52nd Engineers, of Fort Carson, Colo., who is familiar with the production of cement and concrete.

The plant has the capacity to produce 2,000 tons of cement daily, but is producing only about 350 tons a day. French's assessment of the run-down plant boils down to the basics: It needs money, machinery and manpower.

"Before this war, they were making about 1,000 tons a day,'' French said, "but they haven't gotten spare parts since the last gulf war.''

The plant, he said, has $4 million in parts on order but no money to pay for them. Nevertheless, workers toil in unsafe conditions to ship at least 50 tons of cement each day to the Freedom Dam northwest of Mosul to continuously regrout and repair the aging structure. The dam supports the operation of a hydroelectric plant that supplies power to the region.

Leaving French behind to spend the day assessing the plant, Hodges continues his rounds in the countryside.

He travels with about two-dozen soccer balls he hurls from his Humvee. His reputation as the soccer-ball-wielding American precedes him as children run from every corner and hamlet hoping to catch one.

He also travels with soldiers who scan the sides of the roads for explosive devices and the men who would detonate them.

"It's in the interest of a lot of these people not to have peace,'' Petraeus said. "Some of these people not only want to see us fail, they want to kill us.''

On a later stop, Hodges complains to the son of a wealthy Iraqi businessman and newspaper owner about an editorial calling for the ouster of the mayor of Mosul.

Hodges tells him that if the newspaper insists on denigrating the interim government, he and his father ``will always be on the outside. You will never get a contract.''

During the afternoon, Hodges meets with the manager of a propane plant and visits a new courtroom in Hammam, where the mayor persuades him to attend the ribbon cutting for a new primary school for girls. Later he eats with Sheik Ali Sultan, who is trying to persuade him to pave the road to his village.

Hodges challenges the sheik, a portly former Iraqi army general who speaks broken English, to say why his road should be a priority. They haggle, eat roast sheep and talk about family and the first gulf war.

"At first, the people don't like the Americans,'' the sheik said. "But now they see conditions improving and everything is different.''

Security and jobs are his biggest concern, he says, adding that he hopes the Iraqis will be able to govern the country soon.

Before driving off, Hodges grabs a soccer ball and kicks it far out into a field where a waiting throng of kids tussle for it.