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A soldier's side 

How diplomacy will turn Iraq around

U.S. Army Capt. Hunter Hill, a West Point graduate and Atlanta native, is taking a rare two-week break from Iraq, where he's been stationed for the past nine months with the 101st Airborne Division. At the moment, two days before the capture of Saddam Hussein, he's sipping coffee at a Buckhead Starbucks. More typically, Hill, 26, is found alongside his boss, the assistant division commander for operations in northern Iraq.

Originally a first lieutenant on a rifle platoon in Afghanistan, then a second lieutenant on a mortar operation in Baghdad, this summer Hill was promoted to aide de camp to Brig. Gen. Frank G. Helmick. Hill left the Baghdad barracks to live in one of Saddam Hussein's abandoned guesthouses on the Tigris River, in the city of Mosul. He's since been traveling the region with Helmick to help rebuild its fallen infrastructure.

Until recently, Mosul was an odd success story in an Iraq ravaged by poor post-war planning. Maj. Gen. David Petraeus, division commander of the 101st, has won praise for his compassionate treatment of the Iraqi people, for his oversight of Iraq's first post-war city elections and for his efficiency in using Iraq's own resources, rather than wait on American dollars, to restore basic services.

Over the past two months, however, resources in Mosul have run dry, and the Iraqis have grown restless. In that time, more than 30 men and women of the 101st have been killed -- most notably in an attack on two Black Hawk helicopters. As a result of the increasing violence, Petraeus has posed a question to his soldiers, one that Hill considers more crucial than the capture of a despot when it comes to rebuilding Iraq: How can we win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people?

Creative Loafing: It seems like there are these both lofty and concrete principles, of building democracy and rebuilding infrastructure. But beyond that, it seems like the most important thing is to rebuild the character and self-respect of the people who've been so pummeled. Your division's motto kind of speaks to that. But how do you reach the hearts and minds of these people?

Hunter Hill: It's definitely different. I had no idea that I'd be getting unbelievable lessons in diplomacy and political wranglings.

We had millions of dollars of Iraqi-seized assets, and we've spent over $15 million on building up offices and fixing the aqueduct so that the farmers can get water. [The Iraqi people] see the results. That's the bottom line. They see that their kids are back in school. They see banks working. What they don't see, and what's making some of them angry, is that the security situation is still not good. They're just concerned about the security issue, and I don't blame them.

This [city-building] isn't exactly what you were trained to do at Fort Campbell.

You're exactly right. But the thing is, we'll give an Iraqi engineer money [to] do the work we're not trained for. We are indeed the very people who need to be there doing this. We are making things happen. We don't know how to do everything, like you said, because we don't have the expertise. But we go and find the person that does.

How long do you think your work in this particular area will take until it's done to your satisfaction?

It's going to take 10 to 12, 20 years, maybe. If somebody comes in here and tries to be all hard-ass and forgets the people and just focuses on the security thing, it's going to ruin everything that's been done.

It's a very difficult balance, and I'm not smart enough to understand it. Because when [one of us] gets hurt or killed, the natural intent of the soldier, myself included, is to go out and kill. But [Maj. Gen. Petraeus] takes a very sober judgment to it. We try to create operations to find these people and kill them. But at the same time, we do not pull away from the locals. We try to get them to help us.

What's been your most exasperating experience in Iraq?

Definitely when the two helicopters collided and killed 17 people. My boss went there immediately, so I went with him. We'd heard the call that a plane was down, and when we got there and saw the devastation, we then found out that another plane was down. One hit hard and there was nothing. And one came down and the blade was so heavy, it crushed the whole structure and smashed everyone in the back. It was a terrible scene.

What about the most rewarding day you've had?

It would probably be the day we had soccer uniforms made for these orphans. We had soccer cleats. We had some soccer balls. Just to see the excitement in them and to understand that that is the future of Iraq ... But it's going to be hard, really, to change the attitudes and minds of the guys that are our parents' age.

How easy do you think the transition will be from you guys extricating yourselves to there being self-rule?

It's going to be tough. I mean, if we blow this thing off and don't take it seriously then we're just going to be back here in 12 years.

I think the [American] people are concerned about why we came over, and they're saying, "Well, there weren't any weapons of mass destruction and we shouldn't have gone." I think we have to get over that. I think what will make us successful is creating a country that becomes freedom-loving.

What do you make of the comparisons of [this war] to Vietnam?

You're talking about in Vietnam a heinous loss of life, in comparison. But let me say this. There is a similarity that can be drawn in that the enemy we're fighting both in Vietnam and in the Middle East believes so much in their cause that it's almost impossible to defeat them.

But there's reason for optimism here, where there was never any in Vietnam. There was never a point [in Vietnam] where we were saying we're starting to really change these people.

(On Dec. 15, the day before Hill was set to depart for Iraq, CL spoke with him again, about Hussein's recent capture.)

How'd you react to that?

Well, I knew it would happen at some point. I think it will be a good thing for the minds of the Iraqis, psychologically.

Do you think it's going to change anything that you all are doing there?

No. I think we'll just keep right on doing what we're doing.

mara.shalhoup@creativeloafing.com

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