The U.S. military says 100 Iraqi army battalions, totaling about 104,000 Iraqi soldiers, are now fighting alongside U.S. troops in Iraq. The U.S. military says most of these battalions are in the lead in the fight against the insurgency. American generals say the Iraqi army now controls 60 percent of Baghdad. Part of this transition is the transfer to Iraqis of what are called forward operating bases, or FOBs. The U.S. military says more than a dozen FOBs have been transferred to Iraqi authority in the past year.
Outside the barracks of the 6th Iraqi Army's Muthana Brigade, 19-year-old Saif Rafid stands guard. Rafid joined the Iraqi army one year ago to fight the insurgents, and because it pays $400 a month. Like all the other soldiers, he gets a seven-day break every three weeks but he has to be careful about how often he visits his family in Iraq's south.
"It is very difficult to travel, so we have to hide, and not go so often," he said. "We do not want to show up all the time because we are concerned about the security of our families."
That is just one element of the insecurity that Iraqi soldiers have to deal with on a daily basis. Late last month, during a patrol in Baghdad, insurgents attacked Rafid's unit, killing one soldier and injuring four others. Two other soldiers were injured in a later attack.
Meanwhile, back at the Muthana brigade's base, called FOB Constitution, soldiers were living in tents, waiting for their new barracks to be built. The U.S. adviser to the brigade, Dennis Grimsley, says conditions were difficult.
"Then of course the rains came, which flooded the tent area. So, the rain knocked the generator out, so they didn't have any power, so now they're sleeping on cots that were wet from the dripping tents, floors were flooded, and it was just a mess … and in one-week span, all this happened," he said.
Grimsley says 100 Iraqi soldiers went absent without leave that week, out of a total force of around 400. The American trainers feared the unit would disintegrate. But when the rains stopped, many of the Iraqi soldiers started to come back, just as some of their newly renovated barracks were completed.
The American training command in Iraq is putting $35 million into building FOB Constitution, and construction is everywhere. There is a new Iraqi command center and headquarters. A new mosque, modern kitchen, school for non-commissioned officers, and more barracks are being built. Lt. Colonel Mark Samson, who is involved in the project, says the Iraqi soldiers seem pleased by what is being done.
"Down the road, you can see the buildings with the fresh white paint, those are just coming on line," he said. "They'll put 20 or 30 guys in each one, we got [them] new bunk beds, foot lockers, seem pretty happy to be in there. Can't blame them, they've got running water."
Samson says ownership of the FOB was transferred from the Americans to the Iraqis last June, about the same time he arrived to command the 40 men on the American Military Assistance Transition Teams, or MITs, based here to help this Iraqi brigade develop.
The officer says the base has come a long way.
"When we got here, there were two or three locations where guys had pulled up water pipe from ground, like a fountain, and that's where they would go to wash themselves," he added. "I have no idea what was used as a latrine at that time."
FOB Constitution is home to about 1,500 soldiers from the 3rd Brigade of the 6th Iraqi Army. The American army hopes that some day the brigade, like the base, will be able to function without American help. But it has a long way to go.
Samson says, to start with, the brigade needs 25 percent more soldiers. The Americans supply bullets, weapons, uniforms, body armor and vehicles. The brigade also needs better radio communications, armored vehicles, and spare parts for the thin-skinned pick up trucks they currently use. And there are problems with pay - it is not getting distributed regularly. An Iraqi-American contractor who works on the base says this is a big problem for the soldiers.
"They come over here, join army, and when the pay is screwed up, they turn around and leave," he said.
Although the Iraqi soldiers say they joined the army to fight terrorism and defend Iraq, in a country with an estimated 30 to 60 percent unemployment rate, the contractor says money is also a big incentive.
"Most of them are here for the pay," he said. "This is the only job they can get, not a lot of jobs outside the army in the country right now, there aren't a whole lot of employers anywhere."
But beyond the daily patrols, life at FOB Constitution is not so bad since the recent renovations. The brigade has its own food and water now, and most of the soldiers have warm beds to sleep in at night.
The Iraqis have also got a new Tactical Operations Command, which is essential to the Muthana Brigade's ability to control its own operations, intelligence, supplies and communications.
"Moved in here two months ago and they are awful proud of it," he added.
From here, the Iraqi brigade command has started planning their own missions, albeit with American help.
Iraqi commanders in green uniforms with gold detail sit around a shiny table, in a brand new conference room, where a laptop computer projects maps and troop movements on a white screen. They plan the next day's mission, as American advisers sit nearby, watching and listening. It is moments like these that the Americans want to see increase, in hopes that, with the right training, equipment and facilities, the Iraqis can assume more responsibility for the country's bases and battlefields.