U.S. Army troops occupied this crossroads city today, ending the three-week campaign to pacify the Shiite Muslim region south of Baghdad.
Jubilant crowds greeted 4,500 soldiers with the 3rd Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division after a violent display of U.S. firepower Tuesday and this morning shattered resistance.
The capture of Hilla mirrored similar campaigns last week, in Najaf to the south and Karbala to the west, both of which welcomed 101st Airborne soldiers after attacks by artillery, helicopters, armor, infantry and fighter aircraft cracked brittle defenses. In all three cities, resistance by Saddam's Fedayeen paramilitaries and Baath Party loyalists proved no match for U.S. military power, and the subsequent happy pandemonium had the distinct flavor of liberation.
Men, women and children thronged the streets of Hilla, offering thumbs-up gestures and high-fives to infantrymen on foot and in Humvees. A big crowd in north Hilla chanted "Good! Good! Good!" to an Army convoy bound for a quick sightseeing tour of nearby Babylon, where commanders also discovered an immense, vacant palace evidently belonging to Saddam Hussein, the now-toppled Iraqi president.
"You come in here looking for a fight, and instead you find guys hugging and kissing you," said Col. Michael S. Linnington, commander of the 3rd Brigade.
The morning featured several of the three-week war's more candid conversations between Iraqi citizens and U.S. commanders. "Any honest Iraqi person wants to see a good man control Iraq, not replace one bad man with another," said Abdul-Razzaq Kasbi, a local high school teacher.
"We will show you by our actions," said Maj. Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of the 101st. But when Petraeus tried to give Kasbi a commemorative brass coin from the division, the teacher politely declined.
"I can't have anything from you unless I am sure you have come for the sake of our people," he explained.
"He's a show-me guy," observed Brig. Gen. Benjamin C. Freakley, assistant division commander.
Army logistics experts provided the Hilla water purification plant with 500 gallons of fuel to restart generators that had fallen silent earlier in the week. Initial moves also were made to reopen schools, which local Iraqis said had closed on March 17, as war became increasingly inevitable.
Here, as in other Iraqi cities, weapons caches were found in schools, suggesting that Iraqi commanders made a concerted effort beginning in the middle of last month to convert schools into armories in the hope that they would be safe from U.S. attack.
Army commanders had expected a tougher fight in Hilla, in part because the city was largely ignored by 3rd Infantry Division mechanized forces barreling toward Baghdad last month. But a sharp firefight Tuesday afternoon, followed by artillery barrages and further air bombardment through the night, crushed resistance.
Linnington succinctly described the Army tactics employed in this part of Iraq: "You hit him hard, don't take any crap from him, and he just melts away."
The extent of Iraqi casualties was unknown. Three U.S. soldiers were wounded, and groundfire hit four OH-58 Kiowa scout helicopters, two of which suffered serious damage, according to Army sources.
In addition to finding large arsenals, soldiers stumbled upon enormous oil-for-food warehouses, which will be kept under guard until a distribution plan can be drafted. Warehouse No. 5 in southern Hilla, for example, contained everything from Philips flat-screen television sets and men's underwear to bulk supplies of bedsheets, light bulbs, pencils and trash bags. Warehouse No. 19 smelled like a lemon tree, with enormous stacks of laundry detergent from Algeria and Syria. Hundred-pound bags of sugar from France filled Warehouse No. 10.
The emotional outpouring given the Americans over the past two weeks has caused many soldiers to feel more invested in the future of Iraq than they did when the war began.
"Wouldn't it be wonderful if this place turns out to be something?" one commander mused. "There's no reason why it couldn't be. They have lots of money [from oil revenue]. Unless some other petty despot takes over."