TIME: Change in Command -- The Iraqis Learn the Ropes

A new U.S. program for training local officers may hold the key to getting out of the country

Captain Chris Johnson is ready to roll. He is sitting in his armored humvee at the gate of a U.S. military compound in Baghdad, preparing to head out onto Haifa Street, a haven for insurgents and one of the most dangerous districts in Baghdad. Johnson isn't fully certain where he's heading, so he reaches for a handheld radio slung from his body armor and clicks the hand mike. "Colonel, is everybody going to Gator Base?" A voice crackles back: "Yes." It's a routine exchange, save for one thing: the voice of Johnson's convoy commander belongs not to an American but to Colonel Mohammed Faiq Raouf, a former officer in Saddam Hussein's army who shot down a U.S. jet during the first Gulf War. Johnson and his small team of U.S. soldiers are serving under Raouf's command. Having received his direction, Johnson radios back to Raouf. "I'm ready, Colonel," he says.

If U.S. war planners have their way, exchanges like that will soon become commonplace. With a new Iraqi government settling into office, Washington is in a rush to train an Iraqi army capable of taking over the fight against the insurgency. And it's still a fight. Though senior Pentagon officials are "cautiously optimistic," as one puts it, that the insurgency may be starting to subside, few think the war is close to being won. The Pentagon's measures of the insurgency's strength--there are more than 50 metrics--show that the battle is basically where it was a year ago. For every hint of good news in Iraq, there's still cause for concern. The number of attacks against U.S. and Iraqi forces is hovering around 30 to 40 a day, down from a spike of 140 in the days leading up to the Jan. 30 election. But a senior Pentagon official doesn't know whether the lower number amounts to a trend or only a lull. "It could just as well go up next week," he says. The ever present dangers for both foreign and Iraqi civilians were underscored last week by the kidnapping of a U.S. contractor and a rash of suicide bombings; 19 Iraqis were killed in a single day.

Given the level of violence, the number of U.S. troops in Iraq--currently 138,000 in 17 combat brigades--won't come down in the foreseeable future. And the Bush Administration insists it's prepared to keep forces in Iraq until the country is pacified. "We don't have an exit strategy," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said during a surprise visit to Baghdad last week. "We have a victory strategy." But behind the scenes, military planners in Iraq are putting in place a program that provides a glimpse of the future of the counterinsurgency. As the bulk of U.S. troops retreats from the front lines, small groups of military advisers--like Captain Johnson's 12-man team--will form partnerships with Iraqi units fresh out of boot camp, sharing their barracks and accompanying them on missions but allowing the Iraqis to command themselves.

The U.S. plans to increase the number of advisers working with the Iraqis from 2,000 to 10,000. It's a potentially harrowing assignment--modeled on the adviser program in the Vietnam War--since the advisers operate without the force protection that is standard in U.S.-run operations. But the approach could yield big dividends if the Iraqis quickly prove they can become cohesive fighting blocs. "In the past it's been more about getting them out there on the streets," says Lieut. Colonel Mark Kneram of the 10th Mountain Division. "Now it's a more holistic approach, training and fighting together. It's going to be our ticket outta here."

Will it work? To get a sense of both the promise and the perils of the adviser program, just look at the base of the new Iraqi army's 303rd Battalion, in western Baghdad. Outside the gates of the compound is a repurposed Taco Bell sign that reads THE ALAMO. The 1,100 Iraqi soldiers live in a strip of two-story concrete barracks. Johnson and his men sleep in a separate part of the compound where they keep an independent operations room, but spend the rest of their time living and working side by side with the Iraqis, helping Raouf with logistics and communications and making sure the Iraqis' operations are coordinated with U.S. forces. All the G.I.s in Johnson's team of advisers volunteered for the job. "It's something different," says a U.S. sergeant. "And unlike the guys back in my unit doing their thing, I can actually see I'm making a difference."

The lives of the advisers bear similarities to those of Green Berets. While conventional units cannot leave U.S. bases with fewer than three armored humvees, Johnson's team heads out in only two vehicles for nighttime missions accompanying pickups filled with Raouf's soldiers. The Americans are passengers, with the Iraqi officer selecting the route and determining when it's time to return to base. Raouf says his U.S. advisers are the "same as my family. But I'm the father," a description Johnson doesn't dispute.

The division of labor is evident as the troops head out on a foot patrol through Haifa Street. Raouf's men fan out in patrol formation while the colonel and his bodyguards move through the middle. Raouf, in dark wraparound sunglasses, a pistol strapped to his thigh and a snubby machine gun dangling from his waist, waves at men sipping tea at sidewalk cafes and barks orders to soldiers as they scan the alleyways and rooftops for snipers. Johnson hangs back, surveying the street and occasionally radioing the humvees behind him. When Raouf stops to talk to a crying woman whose son has been arrested, Johnson listens in, cocking his head to the side as a translator relays the conversation. "I think he is a bad man," Raouf tells Johnson at the end of the exchange. Johnson nods wordlessly and follows the Iraqi up the street.

The U.S. trainers hope that by turning over decision making to Iraqi officers, they will groom leaders who can hold units together and prevent desertion, a chronic malady of the new Iraqi forces. Judging from the progress made by Raouf's battalion toward pacifying Haifa Street, the strategy is bearing fruit. Since Feb. 15, when Iraqi forces took over responsibility for the area, attacks have dwindled to nothing. That is partly because of the aggressive tactics of Raouf's men. But the biggest contributor to peace in the area appears to be the shrinking presence of U.S. troops. According to sources in the insurgency, Shi'ite and Sunni leaders in the area met earlier this year at a Haifa Street mosque and agreed to halt sectarian attacks and allow the new Iraqi forces to operate. The imam at a local mosque says the arrangement has succeeded for a simple reason: "Now there are no more Americans here."

It will take months, perhaps years, before the same can be said for the rest of Iraq. Though the adviser program has contributed to a rare success on Haifa Street, getting the rest of the Iraqi army up to speed will take some doing. A Pentagon official says most of the 62,000 Iraqi army soldiers the U.S. has trained are still kids who "just know the basic soldiering skills--they've learned to march and shoot their rifles." If the U.S. hopes to get its troops out anytime soon, those Iraqis are going to have to grow up fast.

--With reporting by Douglas Waller/Washington