As violence has declined across Iraq, new recruits to this country's fledgling army are no longer sent directly from basic training to the front lines.
When the insurgency was at full bore and spectacular suicide bombings more commonplace, young and inexperienced soldiers were hastily dispatched to take on militants, often with disastrous consequences for the Iraqi Army.
But today it's a different story and Iraq has a much different Army.
"Prior to the last year or year and a half, the demand for combatants in Iraq was so great that troops would come out of basic training and be thrown more or less directly into combat and not be pulled out," says Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow for defense policy at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.
At the same time that attacks have declined and key militant leaders have been killed or arrested, the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) has steadily grown. Overall, the ISF, which includes the Army, police, and all other military branches, has increased by 146,100 personnel, or roughly the total number of all US troops stationed in Iraq. Now, the ISF is 591,700 strong, according to US military officials.
"This huge size increase has given them enough people that they can now … afford more training before they throw people right onto the front lines, but even after they've been committed to combat they can now rotate battalions and brigades back out for formalized training," says Dr. Biddle.
The quality of the Iraqi military will be a key question for American politicians as they increasingly focus on whether to draw down US troops.
Even just a year ago, the state of the Iraqi military made such discussions a moot point. Inexperienced and laden with corruption, the military was in no position to replace coalition forces.
While there remain questions of how it will fare when US forces finally withdraw, the Army's growing size, experience, and even greater sectarian mix has many praising its capabilities.
When President Bush announced plans last week to bring home 8,000 US troops from Iraq, he said, "Iraqi forces are becoming increasingly capable of leading and winning the fight."
Over the summer, Lt. Gen. James Dubik, the former commander of coalition forces overseeing the training of the Iraqi military, told Congress that the Iraqi military should be ready to take control of primary combat responsibilities in the country by mid-2009.
In the early days of Iraq's security forces, Shiites dominated the ranks, leaving many Sunnis feeling disenfranchised and seeking the aid of insurgents for their own protection. The Army had essentially become the opposite of what it was under Saddam Hussein's control – a tool for enforcing Sunni Baathist dominance throughout the country.
Today, the sectarian blend of Iraq's security forces – 54 percent Shiite, 31 percent Sunni, and 15 percent Kurd – roughly resembles that of the nation, say US military officials.
"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]."
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."