RABIYA, Iraq — Col. Michael Linnington's brigade fought its way across Iraq. But one of his most unusual missions took place in this remote northwestern corner of the country.
His orders were simple — to work out agreement between local sheiks and Iraqi customs officials to restore trade with Syria. What was unusual was that the decision had been initiated not by the State Department or civilian administrators in Baghdad, but by Maj. Gen. David H. Petraeus, the commander of the Army's 101st Airborne Division and the dominant political figure in Mosul and the surrounding areas in northern Iraq.
Three months later, there is a steady stream of cross-border traffic, and the modest fees that the division set for entering Iraq — $10 per car, $20 per truck — have raised revenue for expanded customs forces and other projects in the region.
A five-day trip through the 101st Division's large area of operation showed that American military, not the civilian-led occupation authority based in Baghdad, are the driving force in the region's political and economic reconstruction.
The ethnic makeup of the north — a diverse blend of Arabs, Kurds, Turkoman and tribes — is less hostile to the American presence than the troublesome Sunni triangle around Baghdad, although it has the potential for ethnic strife. But that only partly explains the military's relative success here.
Other elements are the early deployment of a potent American force large enough to establish control, the quick establishment of new civil institutions, run by Iraqis, and a selective use of raids to capture hostile groups or individuals while minimizing the disruption to local civilians.
Another factor has been an American commander who approached so-called nation-building as a central military mission and who was prepared to act while the civilian authority in Baghdad was still getting organized.
An Army general who holds an advanced degree in international relations from Princeton, General Petraeus was steeped in nation-building before he arrived in Iraq. He served as the assistant chief of staff for operations for SFOR, the international peacekeeping force in Bosnia. His division is also well suited for its mission. Unlike an armored unit, it has lot of infantry soldiers — nearly 7,000 — to conduct foot patrols and stay in touch with the local population. It also has 250 helicopters to travel across northern Iraq.
"We walk, and walking has a quality of its own," the general says. "We're like cops on the beat."
Under General Petraeus, the 101st established an Iraqi governing council for the city of Mosul and the larger Nineveh Province before L. Paul Bremer III, the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, arrived in Baghdad.
The 101st has also established an employment office for former Iraqi military officers, found grain silos for local farmers and trained the local police.
In some cases, like the creation of an internal Iraqi security force, the 101st developed policies that Mr. Bremer's authority only recently embraced.
"If there is a vacuum in the guidance from Baghdad or from Washington, Petraeus will study the situation and take action," said Gordon Rudd, the historian for the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, the civilian authority in Iraq before Mr. Bremer's appointment.
Dr. Hunain M. al-Qaddo, a member of the Mosul city council and chairman of its committee on humanitarian assistance, said he has never met with representatives from Mr. Bremer's occupation authority; the real authority, as far as he is concerned, is the 101st.
"They work hard to do the right thing, though sometimes they are inclined to impose their will on us," he said.
Dick Naab, the northern coordinator for Mr. Bremer's occupation authority, said in an e-mail response that General Petraeus "has been key to setting up and running the Nineveh government."
But Mr. Naab noted that the occupation authority had provided millions of dollars for the 101st's reconstruction efforts, had helped by identifying potential projects and is involved in several cities outside Mosul.
"The 101st is 20,000 plus larger than C.P.A. North," Mr. Naab added, using the initial for his northern office. "We are a very small force, but we do our part very well."
The 101st Division's sense of mission is swiftly apparent at General Petraeus's command center inside a Mosul palace.
"We are in a race to win over the people," reads a sign. "What have you and your element done today to contribute to victory?"
The 101st has beefed up its team of military lawyers and focused on civil projects. In the last three months, the division has spent more than $17 million on reconstruction and other civil tasks, using funds provided by Mr. Bremer's authority.
"Money is ammunition," reads one of the division's briefing slides. When his units exhaust their funds, General Petraeus arranges for additional cash from Mr. Bremer's authority or from the division's coffers.
Each morning, General Petraeus receives a status report from his commanders in an hourlong radio call. Told recently that a nationwide project to buy police vehicles and radios for the police was held up in Baghdad, he told his soldiers to press ahead.
"Buy them with my funds," he ordered.
In terms of security, this region does not present as great a threat as the Sunni triangle near Baghdad. But northern Iraq has its dangers and challenges. It was soldiers from the 101st Airborne who surrounded the Mosul house where the sons of Saddam Hussein, Uday and Qusay, were discovered and who fired the 12 Tow missiles that killed them after commandos from Task Force 20 withdrew under a hail of gunfire. That same week, six of the division's soldiers were killed in guerrilla attacks, two more than died during the fight to Baghdad.
The 101st's soldiers still come under attack by rocket-propelled grenades and improvised explosive devices. Each day, there are about three to five "hostile contacts."
In general, however, the division has stressed the selective use of force. When the 101st mounts a raid, its soldiers do not burst in. They surround the house and then go to the door and knock. When Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the chief allied commander, said recently that he planned to abandon the use of huge dragnets because they were alienating the Iraqi public, he was taking a step toward an approach the 101st has sought to use from the start.
Paying compensation is part of the division's strategy to discourage revenge killings. When the division's soldiers recently got into an exchange of gunfire with a small group of looters and killed one, it paid $1,000 in reparations to the dead man's family. Money is also paid for damage to Iraqi homes. More than $200,000 in reparations has been paid so far.
Overseeing Mosul was just about the last thing the 101st had in mind when American forces invaded Iraq. General Petraeus was convinced that his soldiers would be among the first to get to Baghdad. But after the American military was attacked by paramilitary forces in the rear, the 101st was ordered to clear the southern Iraqi cities of Najaf and Karbala before moving north. The Army's Third Infantry Division got to Baghdad first.
After its soldiers followed the Third division to Baghdad, the 101st was ordered to secure Mosul, a city of nearly two million people. It was also to take control of the territory to the west that stretches to the Syrian border, as well as Kurdish areas to Mosul's north and east.
Col. Joe Anderson, the commander of the Second Brigade of the 101st, said he arrived on April 22 to find Mosul in a state of upheaval. A local businessman had proclaimed himself the head of the region. Marines from the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit, who were initially ordered to secure the city, had ignited a popular uproar by raising the American flag over the mayor's office. The marines later left for the airfield on the outskirts of the city after exchanges of fire that Iraqis said claimed 17 civilian lives.
Colonel Anderson quickly moved more than 1,600 soldiers into the city center. The next step was political. Within a few days, General Petraeus began negotiations with the various ethnic groups and tribes to form a local governing council. A caucus was convened, and a mayor was picked on May 9.
To guard against an abuse of power, the new mayor is not allowed to run for re-election. The makeup of the rest of the interim council is an ethnic balancing act; while the mayor is an Arab, his chief deputy is a Kurd.
Throughout this period there was little guidance from the American-led occupation authority in Baghdad, which was focused on working in the capital. Even today, Mr. Bremer's authority has no permanent representatives in about half of the 18 provinces in Iraq.
For the division, the absence of guidance from Baghdad was not a problem.
One early example of its readiness to take action was paying government workers. There were funds in the Central Bank but no government to authorize their disbursement. So General Petraeus wrote a letter — stamped by the division's notary public — decreeing that the funds be provided.
The division has also pushed to amend national policies where it sees fit. More than 100 professors at the university in Mosul were barred from returning to work because of the occupation authority's ban on hiring former high-level members of Mr. Hussein's Baath Party. The professors argued that they had been required to join the party, and that the university had been unable to complete the school year without them. The 101st Division persuaded Mr. Bremer's authority to make a temporary exception.
Outside of Mosul, other brigade commanders have been immersed in the effort to build trust and thus a new Iraq. Near Quarriya, Col. Ben Hodges, commander of the division's First Brigade, encountered so many Iraqis who believed that the sunglasses and night vision goggles the soldiers wear enable them to see through women's clothes that he invited local sheiks to come to his base and try out the equipment.
For Colonel Linnington and his soldiers of the Third Brigade, reopening the border with Syria was a priority. Salaries in Mosul were about to be paid using American dollars, and General Petraeus believed that that would spur inflation unless the supply of goods expanded.
The 150 Iraqi customs officials who used to run the border crossing insisted on keeping their jobs, while the local Shamir tribe also wanted control. Financed by the border crossing fees, an additional 100 positions were given to the tribe.
The next step was to notify Syria that trade was to be resumed. The division's lawyers drafted a letter, which was handed across the border. It was signed by General Petraeus.