Hanson Hosein  /  NBC News
Members of the U.S. Army's First Cavalry Division take part in a raid in Baghdad earlier in June.
By Correspondent
NBC News
updated 6/29/2004 6:34:27 AM ET 2004-06-29T10:34:27

The dust that fills the air at the U.S. Army's sprawling Camp Victory outside Baghdad does not obscure the startling message of the roadside sign.

"Professional. Polite. Prepared to kill," reads the small billboard close to the First Cavalry Division's 3-82 Field Artillery operations office.

The slogan reflects the conflicting nature of Maj. Jeff Collins' job as operations officer for his unit. One moment he'll take part in a deadly raid, while the next moment he's inspecting a contractor's work at a construction site.

Warrior or rebuilder at any particular moment, Iraq's dangerous security conditions still demand that Collins step out of his office fully armed, even with a new Iraqi government, which took power Monday , in place.

He straps a pistol across his chest and carries a shotgun. He is protected by a flak jacket and helmet. Ballistic sunglasses will shield his eyes from shrapnel should his armored Humvee convoy run across any bombs insurgents have planted along the road.

Every expedition is an extreme risk for Collins and his fellow soldiers — more than 800 have died since the start of the war in March, 2003.

Slow progress
But despite the grim toll, there have been some positive developments. And Collins' battalion is behind some of them, with its 140 construction projects and a $7 million kitty to pay for them.

"It's something I'm very proud of," Collins said. "These are the kind of things I point out to the people that I know at home. To show them quantifiable things that we're doing here that make a difference everyday."

One such thing is the Mansour Women's Center in Baghdad. Its director, Manal Omar was worried that the building was unsafe, especially after they found a bomb buried nearby. So the First Cavalry found a local Iraqi contractor, and is now spending $10,000 to build a new wall to secure the rear of the facility.

"The center will have a few hundred women in a month's time," Maj. Annette Dawson said.  She's part of the unit's Civil Affairs team, which spearheads the division's construction projects. "We also have a safe house (for battered women) located in the Green Zone," referring to the U.S.-administered section of Baghdad.

"How's the security of your area lately?" Collins asked Omar during a recent visit.

"It's been much better," she said. Omar has been giving classes to Iraqi women who want to start their own businesses. "We're using your unit as an example of co-operation. And we're very happy with this contractor."

The large blown-out building that sits behind the women's center was formerly the headquarters for Saddam Hussein's feared Republican Guard. But Capt. Dave Minashek intends to transform it into a modern, air conditioned shopping mall, with movie theaters and restaurants. He said it was important to gauge the opinion of local shopkeepers.

"There's been some pretty positive feedback," Minashek said.

The First Cavalry's reconstruction work is a relatively small success story compared to the oft-delayed multi-million dollar projects throughout the country. Collins' battalion employs only local contractors. Many of these Iraqi businesspeople have complained they have not been able to bid on the huge, lucrative contracts that were doled out to foreign companies such as Bechtel and Siemens.

"The Iraqi construction industry has a challenge," David Nash told NBC News. A retired admiral who runs the U.S. government's Project Management Office in Iraq, Nash holds the purse strings to an $18 billion reconstruction fund. "They don't have any equipment. They've been deprived from learning about the latest techniques. They don't know about a lot of the things that some of these companies from the outside will bring in."

Shaky security situation
But the dire security situation here has considerably slowed those big projects.

The projects are faced with higher security costs, as well as with a mass exodus of many international contractors who say it's too dangerous to stay. A hundred Russian technicians returned home after two of their colleagues were recently killed in an ambush, which left Baghdad's crumbling electrical power station without the foreign expertise required to repair it.

Only half a dozen men are working for the First Cavalry on the Mansour Women Center's wall, while about 60 percent of adult Iraqis are unemployed. And both Nash, and Omar al-Damluji, Iraq's new interim Minister of Construction and Housing, say that is what inspires much of the violence.

"The security problem will remain for some time now. Not unless we bring investments to make people work and to strengthen the economy," al-Damluji said.

'I will do anything for a living'
Other Iraqis share his opinion, especially those who don't have jobs, like Ali Jabir. Every morning, he takes his place among a group of men who line up on a sidewalk in a poor Baghdad neighborhood. He hopes a prospective contractor will come by and offer him a day's work.

"Unemployment is creating crime, theft, murders," Ali Jabir said. "Tomorrow, if they would come up to me and ask me to join jihad with them — to get paid to kill and destroy — I would go.  What am I expected to live on?  I will do anything for a living."

The soldiers of the First Cavalry say they're aware that their projects might help to abate the violence. That gives Capt. Evans Hanson a sense of urgency as he scours his battalion's neighborhood regularly for able local contractors.

"Sometimes we go right up to their office and say, 'Hi, we'd like you to submit a proposal for this particular project, are you interested?'" Hanson said.

But it doesn't end with the hiring of the contractor. Hanson talks to each one of them on a daily basis to make sure the work is done properly. The civil affairs specialist, who studied international relations and economics at the University of Southern California, said this is exactly the kind of work he was hoping to find.

"This is the most fun I've ever had in my life," the Houston native said.

Visible change
Lt. Abu-Baker Senge echoed that sentiment. A civil engineer from Portland, Ore., he oversees much of the battalion's school reconstruction. "Schools are where the most people can see the most change. There's a school in everybody's neighborhood" he said. "This is what it's all about. Help the people. Help the transition."

Senge was greeted warmly by a group of children with special needs at the Dina Institute. They all wanted to say hello to him as he inspected the new air conditioner and stove — both purchased with First Cavalry funds.

But while he worked, a group of soldiers remained on guard outside the gate. The troops' mere presence there that afternoon had made the school a target of insurgents who see the American handover of power to the interim government as a sham. The 3-82 Field Artillery clearly has to remain vigilant even as it wages this counter-insurgency to win the hearts and minds of Iraqis.

"We can't shy aware from the danger, to hide away somewhere," Collins said. His mission will continue as his unit now begins to collaborate with the new Iraqi government. "We'll be out here everyday until we redeploy finding ways that we can make our part of Baghdad, a better part of Baghdad."

Hanson Hosein is on assignment for NBC News in Iraq. You can read more of his reports at www.hrhmedia.com

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