U.S. Army Capt. Brian Dugan was already smoking mad. When he first arrived at this Iraqi army post in central Baghdad on a crisp October morning, he discovered that the gunner at the main entrance was missing from his truck-mounted weapon. Another 50 feet in, an Iraqi army guard, his helmet off, was sacked out on a pile of sandbags. A second guard was chatting with three buddies who were just hanging out at the checkpoint.

And now this.

"That latrine is locked," Dugan said, glancing over at a bank of portable toilets. "I know exactly what this is. This is for the officers."

Dugan was angry that the Iraqi commanders had staked out a private latrine for themselves instead of making their soldiers keep all the portable toilets clean. It was just another privilege they demanded, without accepting responsibility for their troops, he said.

"Take the lock off, or I'll cut it off," Dugan told an Iraqi officer walking by.

For the past three months, Dugan, a slight, clean-cut officer with Task Force 4-64 of the 4th Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division, has been responsible for helping train one of the 86 battalions in the new Iraqi army. The work of Dugan and American officers like him is a key element of the U.S. military strategy that entails Iraqi forces progressively taking over security duties here and enabling American troops to go home.

In testimony in September before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Gen. John P. Abizaid, who leads the U.S. Central Command, said that a single Iraqi battalion was at "Level 1" combat readiness, meaning it was capable of taking the lead in combat without support from coalition forces. Gen. George W. Casey Jr., who oversees U.S. forces in Iraq said the number of Level 1 battalions had dropped from three to one since June.

Americans troops in Iraq say the reason is simple: The Iraqi forces are only as good as their commanders, and when those commanders are inadequate, transfer, quit or get killed in action, their units often fall apart.

"You try to build leaders," said Lt. Col. Robert M. Roth, commander of Task Force 4-64. "You're trying to build officers. But you have to understand if you go in and say, 'Duty, honor, country' -- no, it's American. You can't do that. The only thing they understand, for the most part, is money and authority."

Although many of the Iraqi army commanders are veterans of former president Saddam Hussein's disbanded military, they have no experience in leading a volunteer army of men in defense of a nation, the Americans said.

"Privilege is a big thing with them, but we have to stress that with privilege comes responsibility," Roth said. "We have to tell them that they're expected to suffer the same environmental conditions as their soldiers. We tell them that you have to relate to that soldier because you may have to say to that soldier, 'Go take that hill,' and that soldier may die. We have to drill that into the commanders every day."

Before the 1st Battalion moved to FOB Honor in late September, the Iraqi soldiers lived in deplorable conditions at a former airfield in Baghdad, U.S. soldiers said. As many as 1,500 men shared a single latrine that was never emptied. Trash and human feces piled up just outside their living quarters. The officers refused to eat the food served to the soldiers, which was so poorly prepared that half of the men often had diarrhea.

At full strength, the 1st Battalion should have 727 soldiers, enough to patrol its designated sectors of the city and man checkpoints around the fortified Green Zone in central Baghdad. In reality, the battalion has only a few over 600; about 50 of them seem to be on the roster only to show up for a paycheck.

Iraqi soldiers are on duty for 15 days and then get five days to return to their families. But because of the manpower shortage and the battalion's new mission of securing western Baghdad, time off had to be suspended for some.

At a meeting with the Americans last week, a company commander balked at having to tell his men they could not go home for a break. Most of the battalion's members are from rural Babil province and from the Shiite Muslim town of Hilla, about 60 miles south of Baghdad.

"I told you being in the army isn't easy," Dugan told the company commander. "This is going to be an inconvenience. Your soldiers can't leave right away."

"I can't tell them that," the commander responded, putting his head in his hands. "They'll leave."

"Look," Dugan told him, "it's a leadership challenge. Tell the soldiers . . . 'In 20 years you will be part of the history' " of Iraq.

"They'll desert," the commander repeated.

"So tell them to leave and have a nice life," Dugan said, his voice rising. "I'd rather identify the problem now than when bullets are flying and they are walking away. Identify your soldiers who want to be soldiers."

The Iraqi commanders and American trainers moved on to another touchy subject: The next day, about 45 soldiers would be transferred to a new company because it needed additional men. The commanders had already complained that their soldiers did not want to move, and that they should not have to force them.

The night after the meeting, seven soldiers with the battalion's 1st Company walked out of the front gate of the post, angry that they were being forced to move to the new company.

"They call it escape," said 1st Sgt. Mark Barnes, of B Company, a former Army drill sergeant on his third tour in Iraq. "They are free to walk out of the gate anytime. You have to define reasonably what you expect of them. You can't evaluate them by American standards. Here, if what they do gets the mission done, that has to be it."

When Dugan learned that the men had left, he pulled aside the commander of the 1st Battalion, Col. Abbass Rahi Azzari. Azzari sided with the soldiers, fueling Dugan's anger. They exchanged shouts through an interpreter, and ultimately, Azzari produced 15 men for the new company.

After ticking off the list of things that had gone wrong that morning, Dugan finally allowed a smile. "Believe it or not, when they go on the streets they can function," he said.

On a Monday morning, 1st Company set out on a foot patrol of central Baghdad near the fortified Green Zone, an area often targeted by insurgents. The Iraqi platoon leaders led the patrol, with only a handful of Americans walking with them.

"They're getting proficient," said Staff Sgt. Brian Zamiska, 27, of Bentleyville, Pa. "They're in charge."

Zamiska said the U.S. troops who help train the Iraqis had developed a close rapport with them. Although the Americans don't always trust the Iraqis, who tend to shoot wildly and randomly when in a hostile situation, Zamiska said they respected what the Iraqis are trying to do in taking over security in their country.

The Americans have nicknamed some of the Iraqi soldiers, calling out to them, "Hey, English! Larry! Smiley!"

As the patrol crossed a street, a young soldier who identified himself as "Omar from Fallujah" waved off a fellow soldier and walked toward the traffic, apparently wanting to be in charge. For most of the patrol, Omar from Fallujah had been goofing around, complaining about how heavy his Russian PKC machine gun was to tote around with a chain of bullets.

But now Omar was serious. One of the cars could contain a suicide bomber, intent on plowing down his men. He put a single fist into the air and gave the driver of a car stopped at an intersection a menacing scowl.

Dugan said some days were better than others. He gets up each morning intent on trying to make a difference. He knows he is seen as tough. "You've got to be hard on them," he said. "You have to try to instill discipline. I don't want to leave here and say, 'Gee, I wish I had. . . . Gee, I wish I could have. . . .' "

Later, Dugan walked up as a soldier was talking to a visitor. He listened quietly. Sgt. Abbass Abdul Jabar, 21, from Babylon, said he had seen improvement in his fellow soldiers, though he knew that not all of them were there for the right reason.

"Some are only thinking of the pay," said Jabar, who served in the former Iraqi army and joined the new one 10 months ago. "I have to defend my country from terrorists. We have to help the coalition forces as much as we can to give them a chance to go home. These guys have been helping us. We have to protect our families."

"Shukran," Dugan said to the young soldier, using the Arabic word for thank you. "Shukran."

As the soldier walked away, Dugan called after him, "Where are you going? Aren't you on guard duty?"

"No, no," Jabar said. "I have to go get ready to join my new company."

"That's great," Dugan said. "It's a great company."

Iraqi soldiers headed to Baghdad's main bus station last week after reports of insurgents preparing to launch mortars. "They're getting proficient," one U.S. trainer said of the Iraqis.