BAGHDAD -- In the expanse of grey desert east of Baghdad, an Iraqi Army brigade marched Sunday in matching boots and uniforms with M-16 rifles slung over their shoulder, showing off their new formation to Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki.
The ceremony marked the first time an Iraqi brigade had made it to graduation as a fully trained and equipped unit, and dignitaries portrayed it as a milestone. When a second brigade completes training, about 4,000 Iraqi soldiers will be added to Baghdad, freeing four Iraqi battalions to return home and fill holes left by a nearly year-long campaign to secure the capital.
"This will increase the combat strength of the Iraqi Army throughout the country," said Lt. Gen. James Dubik, commander of the Multi-National Security Transition Command.
At the Besmaya Training Camp, where soldiers are trained by a joint Iraqi-U.S. team, young graduates waited nervously for the prime minister to arrive as they practiced chants and waved unloaded M-16s in the air.
Two Iraqi helicopters painted in beige and green camouflage landed with Gen. Babaker Zebari, the Iraqi Army chief of staff. The first flight of Iraqi helicopters with no U.S. oversight, they are two of about 145 aircraft the military has acquired.
"It's a very important army unit we graduate under this difficult situation," Zebari said following the show of young men marching in formation to the national anthem.
The Iraqi Security Forces, specifically the National Police, have been plagued with infiltration of militias, and Sunnis are terrified of the police. In the past year both division commanders and all of the brigade commanders have been replaced, and more Sunnis are being absorbed into the force. Accusations still fly that powerful politicians attempt to influence security forces to do their bidding.
At the end of the ceremony Maliki declared himself, the government and Iraq a success, but warned the recruits.
"You have been taught the importance of the chain of command, you are not to be influenced in any way by any who are outside your chain of command," he said. "Leave politics to politicians ... you as military men, as soldiers, as heroes have the responsibility to protect the state so that all may live in peace whether they are in harmony or have differences."
As he finished his speech and began to walk away, about 2,000 young men surrounded him waving their unloaded weapons in the air. "With our soul, with our blood we will die for you Iraq," they chanted. Maliki shook his fist in the air and mouthed the words quietly.