BAGHDAD -- I'm flying in a Black Hawk helicopter, low over lush palm trees and dry dusty desert, watching two gunners in black helmets and wraparound face masks point their machine guns over the sides.
We are on our way to the sprawling Kirkush military training complex near the Iranian border, where coalition forces have begun to turn over control of the base to Iraqi forces. The logistics are daunting, and Danish Brig. Gen. Per Olsen, the coalition's deputy chief for base support, is on board to check out how things are going.
A coalition military team has stayed on at Kirkush to advise Iraqis on how to run the base and provide the support systems -- food, water, electricity, equipment, transport and more -- that keep bases functioning.
Welcome to the complex world of trying to build a new Iraqi army from scratch, one that can take over responsibility for Iraqi security before Americans tire of the burden. That task requires not only the training of fighting forces, but also setting up logistics systems to maintain them and building a civilian ministry of defense to oversee them.
Under Saddam Hussein, the military never had a fixed budget; it asked for weapons, and the dictator provided. Now the coalition is trying to introduce Western ideas such as civilian control of the military, logistics departments, and the outsourcing of support services to local contractors.
The gap between concept and reality becomes immediately apparent when I speak with Brig. Gen. Saad Ali Henjawi, the Defense Ministry's man in charge of base support efforts.
"If you want good services in our country, you must pay the workers daily, so they will show up," he tells me. "If you pay at the end of the month, you only get 15 percent of the work."
The magnitude of the task becomes apparent when we land at Kirkush, a base with 8,500 personnel. This sprawling complex of new and refurbished boxlike two- and three-story buildings represents part of the $1.9 billion poured into building Iraqi military bases, police stations and border forts.
There is a new electricity plant that will spare Iraqis here the shortages of power that the rest of the country endures; a new water pipeline is buried six feet underground to avoid sabotage. There are new fuel tanks, new shooting ranges, and a supply depot where Iraqi soldiers get kitted out with new uniforms and toilet articles.
But until recently, Iraq's Ministry of Defense never even had a department of logistics (there was no civilian control of the military, so why bother?). The first man appointed to the post was assassinated. So was the first director of base management.
All of the construction, and the speed with which it has been done, is truly astonishing. But the question is whether, and how soon, Iraqis can manage the systems they are being bequeathed.
As we walk through the supply depot, fingering the new clothes, I'm approached by Brig. Gen. Abd Zaid Hussein, the Iraqi commander of the Kirkush base. He asks me whether I know who will pay for supplying these goods once the base is turned over. (Answer: the Iraqis will pay. No more Uncle Sam.)
Another Iraqi officer, choosing to remain unidentified, whispers that the Ministry of Defense is useless. "If the coalition took its hands from the Ministry of Defense," the officer says, "the ministry would collapse."
Not so, says Olsen. "The Ministry of Defense won't fall apart, because the coalition will stay until it is capable. The Iraqis are building every part of the government from scratch. There are no established procedures. You need to mentor and partner for the long term. You will need support for several years."
That indeed is the impression one is left with after touring Kirkush and the even bigger base at Tadji, near Baghdad. This project is so huge, so ambitious, that one can drown in the statistics.
Staggering amounts of equipment have been issued to the Iraqi army and police in the last year, since the Pentagon got serious about training and brought in Gen. David Petraeus to take over the process.
But the new organism being created, under the guns of an insurgency, will take years to jell. And I haven't even looked at how long it will take for Iraqi security forces to take over the lion's share of military effort from U.S. forces (more in another column). Again, substantial time will be required.
How to shorten that time frame is the most important question facing Americans and Iraqis alike. Both publics are becoming impatient. In Iraq, time is more precious than oil.
X Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.