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Iraq's Army grows in numbers and readiness

The U.S. military says that an increasingly capable Iraqi Army could assume primary combat responsibility by mid-2009.

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"At first when I came to this brigade [in 2006], the entire unit was Shiite. There was only one Sunni," says Brig. Gen. Sabah Fadhil Motar al-Azawi, commander of the 26th Brigade. "After we succeeded in Ramadi in the fight against Al Qaeda and JTJ [Jamaat al-Tawhid wal-Jihad], I asked my division commander to give my brigade some soldiers and officers from Ramadi [a predominately Sunni city]."

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Now, General Azawi says, his unit is a 40 percent Sunni.

But despite these apparent gains, a number of observers say that when coalition forces leave, there are still no indications that sectarian violence will not resurface.

"In many ways I think [Sunnis] have used this alliance with us as a way to bolster their own ultimate showdown with the Shiites that may be coming. Take our support, take our money, buy weapons with it, stash them, and then wait for the battle to come.… You have major issues unresolved," says Kenneth Katzman, an Iraq expert at the Congressional Research Service.

Still, for the time being, Iraqi leaders say they're doing their best to keep sectarian issues from resurfacing.

"If I see someone who wants to make an issue about the differences between Sunnis and Shiites, I stop him, and explain that we are here to fight and arrest the people who are making problems for Iraq. I tell them that we are all brothers and we are not different," says Sgt. Maj. Ali Ouda, an enlisted leader in the 26th Brigade.

Last spring the Iraqi military saw the importance of allowing time for proper training when Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki ordered a major offensive to eradicate militia influence in Basra, Iraq's largest city in the south.

The newly formed Iraqi 14th Division was tasked with leading the assault. Aside from being an untested unit, it was not yet fully manned. To fill the ranks, commanders plucked fresh recruits, most of whom were from Basra, from the middle of basic training and dropped them into heavy street fighting – widely regarded as the most difficult combat environment. About 75 percent of enlisted soldiers and 80 percent of officers deserted. Many couldn't cope with battling their neighbors while their own families were at home a few doors away.

To control the situation, in addition to obtaining British and US support, Iraqi commanders deployed the Iraqi Army 26th Brigade. The unit was from out of town and had experience fighting in Ramadi. It had the time to develop the esprit de corps critical to a functional unit, say US and British advisers.

"When you talk to the [26th Brigade] about problems with the unit or problems with the way operations go, they'll say 'Yeah, we're fine. We did Ramadi,' " says British Army Maj. Lawrence Ives, commander of the 1-26 Military Transition Team that advises the Iraqi military in Basra. "That's the beginnings of your military tradition, isn't it? Where you've faced that adversity and you've overcome it, and that's what drives you on the next time."