Soldiers from the Second Infantry Division's 2nd Battalion, 17th Field Artillery, based at Fort Carson, Colo., are currently literally on the front lines in Baghdad. Around 100 soldiers are camped out in a small outpost in Baghdad's Sunni-dominated Adamiyah neighborhood, which borders Sadr City. This location puts these American soldiers in the middle of sectarian conflict between Sunnis and Shiites.
As the call to afternoon prayer echoes through the neighborhood, the troops patrol the streets with a unit of Iraqi soldiers they are training. How well the Iraqis perform in joint patrols may well determine how soon American troops leave Iraq.
So far, the results have been mixed.
In one pre-dawn raid, American forces were supposed to help Iraqi troops search for an arms smuggler. Halfway through the patrol, without explanation or warning, the Iraqi soldiers sped away in their Humvees. U.S. troops were unable to follow and attempts at radio communications went unanswered.
According to Maj. Peter Zike, the unit's commanding officer, "for what they're doing now, they're a very capable force." He does, however, say, "in a lot of ways, it's the corruption, the nepotism and religious intolerance which is their greatest enemy."
Zike also expressed concern that Shiite members of the battalion frequently only want to work if there's a chance they'll catch Sunnis, while Sunnis prefer to target Shiites. Loyalties other than those to a unified Iraq are delaying the progress of the Iraqi army.
Iraqi troops also suffer from a lack of proper equipment, a rotating cast of commanders and a lack of adequate number of troops. "In all too many cases," ABC News consultant Anthony Cordesman points out, "the U.S. has rushed Iraqi battalions and forced elements into being and then into combat before they are ready, effectively undercutting the Iraqi force development process and sometimes gravely weakening fledgling Iraqi units that are not ready to perform such missions."
Training Iraqi security forces is a priority for the Army's First Cavalry Division, which just assumed control of Baghdad from the Fourth Infantry Division.
"My optimism comes not only from the demonstrated ability of our soldiers and the soldiers we're working with, but the fact that Iraqi security forces are just improving everyday," said Maj. General Joseph Fil, commanding general of the First Cavalry Division. "They're growing, they're getting stronger."
President Bush is counting on Iraqi security forces getting stronger. In a joint news conference with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Jordan, Bush said he wanted to accelerate the handover of security responsibilities to the Iraqis. That clearly pleased al-Maliki.
"I can say that Iraqi forces will be ready, fully ready to receive this command and to command its own forces, and I can tell you that by next June, our forces will be ready," al-Maliki told ABC News.