QAYYARAH, Iraq — On a recent day, some of the 2,000 soldiers of the 1st Iraqi Army Brigade patrolled a violent neighborhood in West Baghdad, while more than 200 miles to the north, soldiers of the 1,500-strong 3rd Iraqi Army Brigade were on a raid near Mosul.
They represent two different Iraqi units and both are backed by the U.S military. The 1st Iraqi Army Brigade works with the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division in Baghdad and 3rd Iraqi Army Brigade trains and works with U.S. Army's 25th Infantry Division near Mosul.
The two units have contrasting combat experience, but they are on the same mission. “The people need to see that the Iraqis are taking charge of their country,” explained Maj. Daniel Yeates of the 3rd ID in Baghdad.
President Bush, who has scheduled a prime-time speech Tuesday to outline his plans for Iraq, is hoping Iraqi forces such as these can take over security and eventually allow American troops to pull out of the country.
'Train and operate'
The experience of the two brigades since the Iraqi government took over sovereignty a year ago is a lesson in the challenges facing the U.S. president.
For weeks, the 1st Iraqi Army Brigade has taken a lead in what has been dubbed “Operation Lightning” — sweeping through Baghdad, moving from house-to-house to search for bombs and insurgents.
Watching the Iraqis' backs, and taking notes throughout the operation, have been U.S. troops from the 3rd ID.
The job of the 3rd ID has been to help protect the Iraqis and provide an outer cordon of security, but they say that they can move in quickly — and will do so — if called on by the Iraqi forces.
It's called “train and operate.” The idea is to help Iraqi soldiers to learn by doing. And, according to their U.S. Army trainers, it’s working.
“I believe that they will take the task, and complete the task,” said Spc. Bryan Boudreaux, a U.S. Army trainer.
The 1st Iraqi Army Brigade — which is made up of mostly Shiites — has held its own in close-quarters combat, particularly in Fallujah, last November.
Recently, the soldiers retook Baghdad's Haifa Street from snipers and kidnappers and rescued Australian hostage Doug Wood, with no help from U.S. troops.
“They've shown their bravery, they've shown their technical expertise to be able to fight this insurgency,” said Gen. John Basilica of the 3rd ID.
Different story near Mosul
But it's been a very different story for the 3rd Iraqi Army Brigade around Mosul.
Last fall, entire battalions cut and run in clashes with insurgents south of Mosul. Undisciplined and under daily attack, the mostly Sunni brigade disintegrated.
But today, it is fighting back and was recently a key part of a joint raid on a local Sunni leader, suspected of arming insurgents in Mosul.
Some Iraqi soldiers were visibly uncomfortable with bedroom searches for weapons, but were no longer hiding their faces, or their uniforms.
What accounts for the turnaround?
“The only way I can explain it is that we found two or three leaders who are genuine and capable,” said Maj. Kevin Murphy, of the U.S. Army’s 25th ID.
One example is Ali Atalah Mallow, known to his men as General Ali. A controversial test case, Mallow is the only general in Saddam Hussein's army who has been rehired by U.S. forces.
In just eight months he's rebuilt the 3rd Iraqi Army Brigade and tamed the insurgency in his large area around Mosul, barely escaping three assassination attempts along the way.
“I lead by example,“ Mallow said. “From the front, in a word, I took the initiative. I never cave in to the terrorists' demands.”
Now, the U.S. military is reportedly looking for other vetted former Saddam generals to help coalition forces, too.
Some military analysts are skeptical. The 1st and 3rd Iraqi Army Brigades, they say, represent only a fraction of Iraq's 170,000 soldiers and police. But, most, are far from capable of going it alone.
Still, one year after the transfer of power to the Iraqi government, U.S. commanders here believe that in a year or two these brigades will be leading the charge, on their own.
Jim Maceda is an NBC News correspondent. He was recently embedded with the U.S. Army's 25th Infantry Division, who train and work with the 3 rd Iraqi Army Brigade in Qayyarah, near Mosul .