All across Iraq, Iraqi and U.S. officers are working together to train the country's new army. That effort is being expanded to involve thousands more American trainers, and tens-of-thousands of Iraqi soldiers, with the goal of giving full responsibility for Iraq's security to the new army as soon as possible. VOA Pentagon Correspondent Al Pessin visited the Taji military base north of Baghdad last week, during a tour by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and spoke to some of the officers involved.
The tanks lined up on a huge expanse of concrete are painted the color of sand. Iraqi soldiers stand in front of each tank, with their U.S. trainers nearby, all in their desert camouflage combat uniforms.
Their Iraqi commanding officer, sporting a beret and a graying mustache, beams with pride.
"This project, I think, is the most successful that we have in the Iraqi army right now, because we combine together the American offer of their help and our, let's say, experience that we had before."
The officer, Staff Brigadier Bashar Mahmoud Ayoub, served 27-years in the Iraqi army, before retiring in 1994. He came back last year.
"I have the experience and the power. I want to create once again a new army. I want to give them all my knowledge. I want to give them all my experience. After that, we can retire."
Staff Brigadier Ayoub was given command of the new Iraqi army's only tank unit in mid-January. Just two weeks later, the unit rolled dramatically into Baghdad to help secure the national election. In a country where foreign tanks and other military vehicles are everywhere, it was the first time the Iraqi armor had been on the streets since the fall of Saddam Hussein, nearly two years ago.
"We went inside Baghdad for three days. And the people were so proud and happy to see the Iraqi army once again, especially the tanks and the armored vehicles."
Brigadier Ayoub's job, and those of other Iraqi and foreign officers training Iraq's new army, is not an easy one. The soldiers are a mix of those who served in the old army and new volunteers. The new arrivals know nothing of military skills or discipline. And the experienced soldiers are accustomed to a very different military -- one woefully short of supplies, even bullets, and which required blind adherence to orders from the top.
The trainers are using a variety of donated equipment and new concepts to change all that. The soldiers are being taught discipline, but also to take responsibility for their missions, without waiting for orders or approval from Baghdad.
"They are helping us to go back to the right way to organize the new system, to organize the new army, the one we have in our mind. They are helping us, they are not controlling anything, but they are helping us, to push us, to get the new organization."
Officials say there are about 60-thousand soldiers in Iraq's new army. Most of them have minimal training and experience. But some units are receiving advanced training, and nearly all of them are getting experience fast in Iraq's battle against insurgents. And officials say more men are volunteering every day, including a surge of volunteers after the Iraqi army's widely praised performance on Election Day.
That performance surprised many, but not U.S. officers who have been working with the new Iraqi army, like Colonel Fred Kienle. He says Iraqi units are beginning to take on missions that coalition troops used to do, and he expects more of that in the coming months.
"I think we're going to see it across the board. We see the mechanized units begin to move in. We see the combat service support elements. As a matter of fact, our transportation regiment this week moved 42 pallets of supplies, a mission that would normally go to the coalition forces -- this unit is picking it up."
U.S. officers say that, in elite units, the Iraqi officers and soldiers are conducting their own missions, from planning to training to execution.
Iraqi officers interviewed at Taji say they have no problem working under American officers, at least temporarily. Indeed, the Iraqi colonel who will take command of this base in a few months, Abbas Fadl, praised his U.S. trainer during his briefing for Secretary Rumsfeld.
"Myself and Colonel Bob, we did a good job. All the Iraqi staff like him and respect him very much. And we wish that God can bless him. And also in my opinion, he deserves to be promoted to a higher rank. He deserves it. He is a great man. That's very good."
Colonel Abbas was one of the first former Iraqi officers to volunteer to help build the new army. He told Secretary Rumsfeld that, after he gave some interviews encouraging other Iraqis to join the army, insurgents attacked his family, killing his seven-month-old daughter.
In spite of such tragedies, Colonel Kienle says, he thinks he knows why the Iraqi and U.S. soldiers get along so well.
"I think it's all about soldiers. It really is. They're all soldiers. What we find is, particularly the Iraqi soldiers are patriots. They are risking their lives to be soldiers, as most soldiers do, but them particularly. They put up with the intimidation that their families might undergo. And they see a new Iraq. They're committed to what they're doing."
Colonel Kienle says it is no coincidence that the headquarters of the coalition training command in Iraq is called Camp Phoenix. He says the Iraqi army is like a phoenix, the mythological bird that rises from ashes to a new life.