KIRKUK, Iraq — He's never set foot in the State Department, but the man conducting diplomacy for the United States in this strategically important northern city Saturday was 30-year-old Capt. Eric Baus, of Collingswood, N.J.
Baus, a company commander in the Army's 173rd Airborne Brigade, began the day with what he considered a fairly straightforward mission: Clear and occupy a compound that had been the center of Kirkuk's municipal government under Saddam Hussein.
After hours of negotiating with Kurdish officials and militiamen occupying the center, Baus and his paratroopers had learned a telling lesson about the mind-bending challenges that face U.S. forces as they seek to restore order across Iraq in a way that keeps a lid on long-simmering ethnic tensions. Nation building, it turns out, makes winning a war look easy.
"This is just a power struggle, and we can't get in the middle of it," Baus said at one point, as he was trying to figure out the difference between Kurdish police, who will be allowed to carry guns in Kirkuk, and Kurdish soldiers, who are supposed to be barred from the city.
Baus's day started simply enough.
After he got his orders, he drove out in his Humvee with about 40 infantry soldiers following on a rented flatbed.
Crowds of Kurds cheered and waved at the convoy, as they have been doing for every American vehicle they see.
Baus was counting on having to evict a few Kurdish soldiers, whom he knew had already ransacked the place. But when he arrived, with no interpreter, he found an enormous complex filled with Kurds in various uniforms, most of them toting AK-47 assault rifles. Outside was a crowd assembled for what looked like a political rally.
No one had bothered to tell Baus that Jalal Talabani, the head of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the faction that holds sway in Kirkuk, had scheduled a political appearance in the building the Americans were intending to take.
"I think right now discretion is the order of the day," he said, after counting about three Kurdish guns for every American one.
Baus called for his boss, Lt. Col. Dominic Caraccilo, the battalion commander.
His soldiers stood around, bristling with machine guns and grenades. As Baus waited, he spoke with Mahmoud Mahmoud a civil engineering professor who was educated in Madison, Wis.
"Right now, we need the Americans to keep the peace," Mahmoud said. "There are many (Kurds) carrying weapons, and they say show me your card or we kill you. If the Americans capture the buildings held by the PUK and the KDP (Kurdistan Democratic Party), the people will feel better."
Baus heartily agreed. He had spent his first few weeks in territory controlled by the KDP, and now he was in PUK-land. His goal was to remain neutral and to be seen as an independent force looking out for all the civilians of Kirkuk, a city that includes Kurds, Arabs and Turks.
When Caraccilo arrived and the paratroopers asked to speak with the person in charge, they found themselves in an office with Faridon Abdulkadir, who described himself as the PUK's interior minister.
After asking his advice about which sites in Kirkuk the 173rd should occupy as a show of force, Caraccilo and Baus spent the next several minutes asking Abdulkadir to clear all the soldiers out of the building.
"What about my guys?" Abdulkadir asked, explaining that he traveled with a team of bodyguards.
"I don't understand why you need guards with machine guns," Baus said. "If you stay here, we will protect you. If you have civilian staff, that's fine." He added: "Whether it's official or unofficial, this can't turn into a PUK political office."
Baus also explained that the paratroopers intended to make Kirkuk a weapons-free zone, which means seizing any guns they see. They have set up checkpoints to accomplish that, although they know it they will never be completely successful.
Lengthy discussion followed over whether PUK-sponsored traffic police could patrol the city and man checkpoints wearing blue uniforms. Eventually Baus was satisfied that they did not look like soldiers. He wondered, though, whether PUK's militiamen would just change uniforms.
When it was over, Caraccilo rolled his eyes. "We're gonna decide who we're gonna put in the regime in Baghdad next, too," he said.
The Kurdish soldiers left the building quietly. Some even neatened up for the Americans. Abdulkadir was allowed to remain.
For now, the well-armed Kurds seem willing to follow American orders.