The Humvee barely stood out from the dozens of others speeding through Baghdad Saturday. It had the same bullet-proof glass, thick armor plating, and an enclosed machine gun turret on its roof. But even through the haze of a sandstorm, the telltale red, white, and black of the new Iraqi flag stood out on the driver's steel door.
Late last week, the first of 8,500 refurbished US military patrol vehicles hit the streets of Iraq, with Iraqi soldiers and police officers at the wheel. Russian-built helicopters in the new Iraqi Air Force are also beginning to be spotted thudding through the sky.
Top US commanders here point to the Humvees and aircraft as signs of success in their push to help Iraqi forces maintain security as the US surge begins its slow deflation.
The vehicles were requested last year by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government. They have already been used by US forces and were scheduled to be sent home and are now being transferred, after being repaired, to the Iraqis, according to Lt. Col. Dan Williams.
Colonel Williams says comparable Humvees purchased from the US would cost about $225,000 each.
The Iraqi government is paying for a portion of the cost to rewire the vehicles and outfit them with weapons, Williams says. He says the US is realizing some cost savings by not having to ship the armored vehicles back home.
Although Iraq once had the world's sixth-largest air force, the country now operates a mere 150 or so aircraft, conducting mostly resupply and reconnaissance missions, Air Force Maj. Gen. Robert Allardice says. But the fleet will triple in size this year and some of the airplanes and helicopters will soon be equipped with limited firepower, he said.
The Air Force remains a fraction of its former size and power, but the mere sight of Iraqi flags again on aircraft has prompted cheering and waving from civilians on the ground, Williams said. Restoring faith in a central government is exactly what the Pentagon says will help bring stability to Iraq, he said. "We're at the starting end of it. We're building institutions. It takes time."