HABBANIYAH, Iraq -- U.S. soldiers used to patrol here. Now, soldiers of the Iraqi army's 1st Division have the lead and are the force to be reckoned with should terrorists decide to attack.
As Iraqi troops meandered down uneven roads intersected by alleys barely big enough for a small car, these warriors of Iraq's future kept a watchful eye for anything out of the ordinary here April 29.
Habbaniyah and its surrounding areas have been hotspots and transit points for many of the insurgents operating in what the Marines call the Fallujah/Ramadi corridor.
Daily mortar and small-arms fire coupled with the ever present threat from improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, keep the Iraqi soldiers busy in this Euphrates River valley community, which is dotted with villages, dilapidated towns and lush agricultural fields not usually pictured when one thinks of Iraq.
This is the first patrol for the captain serving as patrol leader and confusion was visible. At one point his troops, called Jundis, are too bunched up, later spread too thin. He even got off track of the planned route and had to ask directions from locals for a way back.
For an outside observer, this situation can seem negative, but for Marines working with them, the Iraqi soldiers are doing exactly what they're supposed to be doing - operating on their own and figuring it out as they go.
"The Iraqi troops are 20 times better than when we first got here in January, and they keep getting better," said Gunnery Sgt. Michael McDaniel as he followed the patrol.
The Arabic greeting "Salam Alaikum" was heard echoing up and down the columns of troops as they passed locals tending their shops, performing household chores or just socializing with neighbors.
Two soldiers walked around like Iraqi Santa Clauses with black trash bags filled with toys and candies for swarming children who didn't seem to care what they might get, but were just happy to receive something. Some soldiers handed out sodas they had stuffed in their cargo pockets.
Some children peered out of their yards to watch the spectacle but didn't join in.
Local men went about their business - some happy to greet the soldiers, some seemingly oblivious to the soldiers presence, and some visibly upset with displeasing looks cast towards their countrymen in uniform.
The women watched from a distance from the back of an alley or through a window of their home.
McDaniel was one of two Marines on this patrol whose job was only to advise these soldiers when needed or asked.
Such advisors are part of Military Transition Teams, called MiTTs, and are embedded with Iraqi units throughout the country. They are completely integrated into their assigned Iraqi army unit and spend their tour living, eating, training and fighting with their Iraqi counterparts.
McDaniel, a native of Los Angeles, has taken an extreme detour in his military career from being a logistics chief to serving as part of a MiTT. Instead of figuring out how to order, receive, and ship military gear throughout the world, he's now immersed in the Iraqi culture and part of an effort to stand up an independent Iraqi army.
"This is the best job in Iraq," said McDaniel, a father of two girls, Jazlyn, 3, and 2-month-old Laila who was born after he deployed.
Capt. Jonathan Bonar, a logistics officer for the Marines was the senior advisor for this patrol. Bonar says that daily patrols are key to turning over responsibility to the Iraqi army.
"A U.S. Army National Guard unit used to patrol this area and now we actually have Iraqis conducting missions here," said Bonar. "Overall, it's been a success," he said.
Success is a relative term for many Marines serving with Iraqis, often measured in small victories.
"If the Iraqi soldiers get it 70 percent right, then that's more important than us doing it 100 percent right," said McDaniel.
This was evident at a recent graduation of the first all Sunni boot camp held on the U.S. run base Camp Habbaniyah. Nearly 1,000 new troops graduated but more than half later quit when they found out they would not be stationed in their hometowns.
The Iraqi army does not currently require their soldiers to stick around after enlisting if they decide to quit.
One Iraqi officer told the new graduates, "There is a gate big enough for a camel to fit through if you want to leave."
The sentiment among many Iraqi soldiers already serving is that if someone doesn't want to serve then they don't want them anyways.
"What people need to realize is that they have to do things their own way," said Bonar.
On patrol, Iraqis definitely do things their own way. As they came to an end and entered the confines of the base, some soldiers carried with them items they bought from local vendors.
For the Marine advisors, another mission down is another step towards progress.
"When we all get back together and things go smoothly, it's rewarding. The results will show in the future," said McDaniel.