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Iraqi soldiers prepare an equipment inventory in their barracks last week. Many Iraqi troops have access to Humvees, an Iraqi version of the MRAPs, Kevlar helmets and body armor.

Iraqi soldiers prepare an equipment inventory in their barracks last week. Many Iraqi troops have access to Humvees, an Iraqi version of the MRAPs, Kevlar helmets and body armor. (Seth Robson / S&S)

KARBALA, Iraq — The work day on the Iraqi base starts early, with troops rising at dawn to enjoy the cooler morning air and eating a breakfast of cheese, soup, bread, milk and tea.

"Enlisted soldiers and officers eat the same food. They say it is better than what they get at home," Brig. Gen Majid Hameed said.

It may sound like any other army in the world, but that’s the point. The Iraqi army has changed greatly since the Americans came, according to Hameed, who served during Saddam’s regime.

The soldiers have better equipment and conditions at Iraqi army garrisons are improving rapidly. The soldiers have more rights, although their role is still dangerous, according to Hameed and others in his brigade.

The Iraqi army, which was dissolved after the U.S. invasion in 2003 and rebuilt from scratch, now employs hundreds of thousands of soldiers at bases all over Iraq.

At Patrol Base Hussainiyah, outside Karbala, a city of almost a million people south of Baghdad, soldiers from the IA’s 33rd Brigade live and work next door to U.S. troops from Battery B, 1st Battalion, 77th Field Artillery Regiment, 172nd Infantry Brigade.

The Iraqi army’s mission in Karbala involves mounting patrols and manning checkpoints to protect the 12 million Shiite pilgrims who visit shrines in the city each year.

Most of the soldiers in his brigade, which operates in an almost exclusively Shiite area, are Shiites from Diwaniyah province, but some are Sunni — and all are treated them same way, Hameed said.

"In Saddam’s time there were a lot of ways to torture people. There is more freedom and democracy in the army now. Soldiers have the freedom to talk without pressure," Hameed said.

In the old Iraqi army, if a soldier didn’t come back to their unit they could be shot, he said.

"Now the soldiers have rights. We have a lot of soldiers who say they just want to quit. We don’t force them to stay in. If a soldier doesn’t like working in the Army he files a request with his reasons and normally, within 45 days he is allowed to leave," he said.

One relic of Saddam’s era is Iraqi soldiers come from all over the country to join their units wherever they are stationed. Saddam’s regime preferred to keep soldiers separated from their home communities. Soldiers are seen as less vulnerable to corruption and intimidation than police, who have local ties.

Soldiers get five days’ home leave for every 10 days at work, Hameed said.

Lt. Hussein Yasin Samir, who commands the brigade’s quick reaction force, has been in the Army two years.

The young father of two, who survived a bomb attack that left his house in ruins, said he’s seen big improvements in the IA’s weapons and equipment and in public support for the military. Among other things, many Iraq troops have access to Humvees, an Iraqi version of the MRAPs, Kevlar helmets and body armor, and U.S. style desert boots.

"Right now the Iraqi people like the IA and trust them more than the IP (Iraqi police)," he said.

Does his family worry about his safety?

"It’s my job and it’s my choice," he said, adding that he tells his wife a lie, that his job carries little risk.

When they are not on the road, the IA troops at Hussainiyah work out in a gym full of old weights, play soccer or watch television.

On Friday night Pvt. Hassan Hamza Mohamed Al-Selawi, 25, was listening to Islamic prayers on a radio while other soldiers watched television.

Al-Selawi said Iraqis would never decorate their rooms, as U.S. soldiers do, with photographs of women. Other, less pious, soldiers in the room burst out laughing as they watched a pretty girl in Western clothes pitching a product on the TV.

"It wasn’t my original plan to be a soldier," said Al-Selawi. "I wanted to teach social studies but I wasn’t accepted to the teachers’ institute."

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Seth Robson is a Tokyo-based reporter who has been with Stars and Stripes since 2003. He has been stationed in Japan, South Korea and Germany, with frequent assignments to Iraq, Afghanistan, Haiti, Australia and the Philippines.
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