"I'd take a bullet for them and I know they'd take a bullet for me," says U.S. Army Maj. Alvaro Roa. He calls them "my guys" and takes pride that they are the best in the brigade. It's obvious there's a friendship -- the type forged in combat -- between Roa and his men, the soldiers of the Babylon battalion of the Iraqi 6th Army.
"I get about 50 man kisses a day," Roa says, referring to the traditional Iraqi greeting, "and it doesn't bother me at all." Roa is the chief of one of more than 400 transition teams -- American soldiers that live, work and fight with Iraqi security forces.
It's not uncommon to hear soldiers talk about their Iraqi colleagues with contempt, but the talk from those who know them best, the transition teams, is more often full of praise and admiration.
"I'm extremely impressed with the Iraqi soldier," shouts Sgt. Dusty Hunt, over the crackle of gunfire on an Iraqi firing range, "from working without equipment to the training they have … to keep going out on missions over and over, you can't say enough about them."
Hunt says that many of the officers and soldiers have been threatened. "The risk is not just to themselves but to their families and anyone they associate with -- just another factor that impresses us."
"A lot of them are very good soldiers, compared to our soldiers, same capabilities, same motivation but if you don't have the resources what can you do?" says Roa. Senior military officials we talked with say they give the Iraqis all the equipment they need, but the supplies are issued by the Iraqi Ministry of Defense. By the time it gets to the Iraqi soldier, "we get about half of what we need," says Roa. "The issues don't come from the bottom up, they come from [the] top."
The major's "jundis" ("soldiers" in Arabic) -- which is what he calls them -- call him Abu Nicco, or father of Nicco, Roa's son. It's a sign he has been accepted. Roa has some advice for the thousands of other U.S. soldiers that will now have to work with Iraqis in order to build a road home. "These guys are smart … the first order of business is to gain their respect. You have to lead by example and care about them, their Army and their country".
Senior officers say one of the reasons some U.S. soldiers may not willing to trust Iraqi soldiers is because of the "uneven" performance of some Iraqi Army units. Recently while on patrol an American commander "lit up" the radio after seeing an Iraqi checkpoint that had been abandoned. "I want that MiTT (military transition team) to take care of this. I'm not going to baby-sit these guys. It's only a matter of time before we roll up on an I.E.D." Freelance journalist Michael Yon has reported that when the U.S. Army in Mosul forced the Iraqi Army to use its own fuel, they responded by cutting roadside bomb patrols. Several days later four U.S. soldiers were killed by an I.E.D.
Iraqi battalions are rated from four to one. Four is reserved for beginners and a one means they can fight on their own. Roa's Babylon battalion gets a two rating. "I could give them a one if they had adequate logistic support from higher up," says Roa. One of the reasons he believes his jundis can lead the fight is because of his commander, Col. Jaleel. "He's an honest man who cares about his soldiers and is a great officer," says Roa. The two are personal friends. "It's a different culture," says Roa. "If you don't have a relationship with your counterparts you can't do your job."
Jaleel's Babylon battalion and the 2,300 soldiers in the second brigade own a piece of nasty real estate near Abu Ghraib west of Baghdad. Firefights are common.
The brigade commander is Gen. Nassir. He is the kind of officer who can fill a room. "He's a great leader," says Capt. David Pate. "He's tactically sound -- a great commander." Nassir admits the Iraqi Army is not ready to lead the fight. "We need equipment, training and support from our friends," he says. "I want to thank the Americans for their help, for the sacrifice of their sons and daughters." His translator uses the word "martyrs," a term of respect. Nassir nods in agreement. "But I ask them to be just a little more patient … the job is not quite done."
Getting that job done will depend on men like Alvaro Roa. He's shipping out in a couple of weeks but has this advice for those who follow. "Iraqi soldiers are soldiers just like us, people like us … you need to treat them with respect."
But can they lead the fight?
"They want to do the right thing from the command level to the soldier," says Roa. "Yes, they have what it takes and they want their country back."