Two Iraqi men fire a rocket-propelled grenade at a passing army truck sending up a huge plume of smoke. 

From what appears to be the wreckage, a US soldier emerges and walks over to correct their firing posture. "The first shot was good," he says. "Make the next one better." 

Here US occupation forces are training a special division of the Iraqi army to tackle the Iraqi resistance.

The Iraqi National Task Force (INTF), now standing at 1710 and eventually to number some 7500 is preparing to fight inside Iraq's cities - learning skills such as house-to-house combat and guerrilla warfare techniques.

They could be fighting fellow Iraqis in Falluja or Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr's al-Mahdi Army as early as 1 July.

The idea for the INTF was formed on 5 April, the day US forces cordoned off the city of Falluja and the occupation-formed Iraqi army crumbled in the face of fighting its own people under US command. 

It gained momentum as US troops vowed to destroy al-Mahdi Army and engaged the militia close to some of Shia Islam's holiest shrines.

The two incidents generated anger at the US, neither objective was achieved and both issues were left simmering ahead of the partial hand-over of power on 30 June.

Power imbalance

As the US army begins lowering its profile ahead of the creeping deadline, the late formation of a proxy force such as the INTF to combat resistance fighters highlights a deepening problem.

A serious imbalance of power exists between occupation-supervised Iraqi security forces such as the army, and independent armed groups operating in the country. 

US soldiers at the Taji army base

Once the most powerful military force in the Arab world with one million soldiers, 9000 armoured fighting vehicles and more than 500 combat aircraft, the Iraqi armed forces now stand at just 6000 men with AK-47s, outgunned and outnumbered in their own country by tribes, the resistance, any of the four major militias, or the army of millions of angry unemployed. 

The current goal for Iraq's combined army, air force and navy is 35,000 troops by the year's end. 

Just as alarming, the army, which was dissolved so it could no longer be a threat to the region, now faces a gross imbalance of power with all six of its neighbours. 

Far from threatening Israel, theoretically Iraq now requires protection even from Jordan or Kuwait, its weakest neighbours. 

The greatest military imbalance of all is the one that exists between Iraq's armed forces and the US military occupation itself. 

Iraqis routinely accuse the US of purposely keeping Iraqi security forces weak to provide a justification for the continued military presence. 

"You can't call it an army with just AK-47s and no tanks or planes," says Ammar, a former officer. "It's impossible the Americans will give us such things because then the army would be capable of defending Iraq and the government could ask them to leave."

Army destroyed

The road to this point for Iraq's military did not begin with the fall of Baghdad. "Our army was systematically destroyed over time as no other army in history," says General Qahtan al-Tamimi, a 37-year veteran. 

"My soldiers were not cowards, but it was like we were holding a stick in our hands and the enemy had an AK-47"

Iraqi General Qahtan al-Tamimi

Devastated in 1991 by a war with the world's most powerful military, 13 years of crippling sanctions, intrusive inspections and disarmament, no-fly zones, and bombings of military infrastructure, by the time Iraq's army entered its second war with the US it was a suffering, weakened institution.

General Jalal Muhammad led a division convoy from Mosul to Baghdad. Of the 7800 troops he had when they set out, only 50 remained by the time they reached the capital.

"We were bombed before we even left our base - while we were packing. The rest fled or died along the way. My soldiers were not cowards, but it was like we were holding a stick in our hands and the enemy had an AK-47." 

Because most of the army declined to engage US-led occupation forces, many soldiers expected their institution would be preserved.

Instead, what followed was looting of army sites across the country, and a massive net transfer of Iraq's arsenal from an organised army to weapons dealers, guerrillas, parties and militias. 

The coup de grace was delivered by US occupation administrator of Iraq Paul Bremer on 23 May 2003 when he abolished the army by order, declaring it illegal.

History repeats itself

Newly appointed interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi has said he wants to rapidly increase the size of the new Iraqi army. Many see in this demand a repetition of history.

Once again Iraq is looking to
build up its army

The Iraqi army was founded in 1921, the year after the 1920 revolt against British occupation, which hit the British hard in lost lives and sterling.

Wanting out of Iraq, but reluctant to turn over the levers of power, they created a small all-volunteer Iraqi army, and lobbied hard against Iraqi efforts to expand it through conscription. 

King Faisal, the first modern ruler of Iraq, was anxious to enlarge the army, doubting he could deal with two armed uprisings at once.

In 1933 when the Iraqi army stood at a mere 7500, he complained: "In this kingdom there are more than 100,000 rifles, whereas the government only has 15,000." 

The desire to get a handle on internal security went hand in hand with a national yearning to expel the British.

So long as the Iraqi army was too weak to assert itself, Britain could retain indirect power over the government and its RAF bases across the country. The occupation and restrictions on the new Iraqi army soon inspired a nationalist backlash.

Sami Shawkat and other pan-Arab thinkers began calling for Iraq to have half a million soldiers. "The nation that has no force is doomed to humiliation and enslavement," declared Shawkat. 

"We believed foreigners controlled our country," says General Qahtan, "this made young people want to defend Iraq and the best organisation to do that was the army. We wanted to strengthen it so if any power tried to exploit us again they would pay a price."

Starting over

The US-led occupation has left a large imprint on Iraq's new armed forces.

Paul Bremer (2nd R) says the
most senior posts are fixed-term

The Ministry of Defence is stacked with 75 largely US-selected Iraqi personnel trained in Washington and occupation administrator Bremer has indicated that five of the most senior positions have a set term and in theory cannot be changed by any Iraqi government until 2007. 

All officer staff for the end state army of 35,000 have already been selected and trained by the US military - they will be the leadership core of the new force as it grows. 

There is also the obvious influence over Iraqi ambitions exercised by 150,000 mostly US troops spread out in bases across the country, and $18 billion ($6.4 billion already spent) in US aid to be parcelled out by a US ambassador and large embassy staff of 1700. 

With so little of Iraq's armed forces manned and equipped, US occupation advisers will continue to train, work and share bases and facilities with them. 

Iraq's air force will be supported by "coalition mentoring teams" to teach them how to interface and integrate their work with US air activity.

The coastal defence force is supposed to work closely with US naval forces in the Persian Gulf and Umm Qasr Naval Base will be available for use by the US navy. 

What kind of weapons Iraq will have in the future will theoretically be up to the Iraqi government but it is likely the US will use its influence to ensure the multi-billion dollar re-equipping of the Iraqi army is done by US manufacturers, thus requiring US expertise, spare parts and a continued friendly relationship. 

Command and control

Currently the US occupation administrator of Iraq has supreme command and control of Iraq's armed forces.

Negotiations are now underway between the Iraqi leadership and US occupation authorities over how much command and control Iraqis will have after 30 June. 

Former Iraqi soldiers protest
against non-payment of salaries

"Tactical operational control appears to be going to Chief of Staff General Amir Bakr Al-Hashimi," says General Paul Eaton, outgoing head of the Office of Security Transition. "General Amir has expressed an interest that it will be an Iraqi chain of command." 

But will the Iraqi chain of command report up to a US general? "What do you think?" says a senior military official: "It will be the status quo."

Many former officers despair at the levels of US integration and management.

"During Saddam's time, the enemy was outside our borders," says General Jalal Muhammad. "Now, it's inside our house. How can Iraq ever build an independent, sovereign government this way?" 

Unifying force

King Faisal called the army "the spinal column for nation forming". As Iraq's diverse society faces increasing threats, the need for a force that can unify the Iraqi people in service to the nation is urgent.

The new Iraqi army is small, weak and compromised by US control. When will it be able to play a viable role? 

According to General Paul Eaton "in a perfect world", it would take a minimum of three to five years, with generous international donations and an Iraqi government willing to sacrifice social services, to build the six to nine fully equipped divisions required for a country the size of Iraq. 

Until that time, Iraq is caught in a Catch-22 situation - forced to rely for its security on foreign forces that attract as much, if not more insecurity than they repel. 

"America has brought us back 200 years," says one general, a proud man who joined the army in 1970 for nationalist and patriotic reasons.

Talking about the current state of the army, he is reduced to tears.

"When Baghdad fell I was finished. I haven't stopped crying since. Every night I ask my wife to put the pillow on my face. I have no hope any more. Iraq has become so weak."