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First Iraqi army academy troops graduate

By CNN's Terence Burke

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Iraqi officers demonstrate their discipline.

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BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- The trip was pitched to us by the U.S. military as an opportunity to see first-hand, what it calls, the future leaders of the Iraqi army.

Thursday, 73 young men became the first graduates from the re-furbished academy for Iraqi army officers, fashioned along the lines of Britain's exclusive Sandhurst officer school.

But before getting to that story, like most events journalists cover in Iraq, there are always other tales to tell in the trip to and from the final destination, up until that final moment when one feels safe -- relatively safe -- within the walls of one's house or hotel.

Cameraman Joe Duran and I meet up with our U.S. military escorts inside Baghdad's Green Zone -- the heavily fortified area controlled by the U.S. military and its coalition partners. There, we had expected to link up with the military and make the trip to al-Rustamiyah, southeast of Baghdad, via helicopter.

Upon arrival, we learned that would not be the case. Instead, we would travel by land, in a convoy consisting of several armored humvees and SUVs, along, what we are told, is one of Baghdad's more dangerous roads.

Before getting settled into our armored vehicles, myself, Joe, and a handful of other journalists, listen in on a briefing by the U.S. officer commanding the convoy.

He outlines the frequency and types of recent insurgent attacks that have taken place on the road to al-Rustamiyah. He warns that improvised explosive devices have littered the route in the past, but that they have been seeing more use of a relatively newer weapon -- EFPS: Explosively formed penetrators.

Somewhat comforting is that the officer also says recent weeks have seen a major decrease in activity along the route we are to take.

However, it's not long before we witness the devastation such benignly named weapons can wage. We speed eastbound, across the Jumhuriya Bridge, crossing the Tigris River. Not long after, as we approach an intersection, with overpass looming above, we witness first-hand the destruction that EFPs can wreak.

Iraqi police, and a crowd of men, gather around a white SUV on the side of the road. As we pass, we see a gaping hole through the rear passenger window, the inside of the vehicle badly burned. Apparently this was the work of an EFP.

I'm later told that this SUV was part of a security convoy that had been struck not long before we rolled through. We later learn that nobody was injured or killed in the explosion, surprising considering the state of the vehicle, and moreover, I am told, due to the power of EFPs.

This type of explosive device is essentially a copper plate packed with explosives, set off by a detonator when triggered, and then fired off horizontally toward its target. They are not difficult to make, inexpensive, and devastating. It was clearly someone's lucky day.

Further along our journey, we witness an incident that captures the essence of a problem facing the U.S. Military here: Directly in front of our SUV, the gunner in an armored humvee spots a car, directly to our right, that he deems suspicious. No chances are taken. The gunner unloads a quick burst of fire toward the wheels of the vehicle, sending it to a jarring halt on the road's shoulder.

We passed by the dilapidated car quickly, but there was enough time to see the pained and aggravated look on the driver's face. Who knew what his intentions were? Perhaps malicious, perhaps he was unaware that he was traveling, by their measure, too close to the convoy.

It's easy to understand why the gunner would have unloaded so quickly -- scores of U.S. troops have been killed by car bombs since the insurgency began -- but what if this man is simply an innocent motorist? Surely having your car gunned down by a humvee turret is a life-altering experience.

Iraq's premier officer school

Blinded by sand kicked up by the convoy, we safely arrive at the al-Rustamiyah military base, now occupied by U.S. forces.

Adjacent to the base is IMAR -- the Iraqi Military Academy at Rustamiyah. Originally built by the British in 1924, the academy has traditionally been Iraq's premier officer school.

The school has sent officers to fight in all Iraq's major conflicts -- against Israel in 1973, the Iranians in the 1980s, and in both Gulf Wars. But the young men we will see are preparing for a whole new type of battle, against an insurgency undefined by national borders.

We enter the balcony of a gymnasium and before us stands, we are told, the future of Iraq's military leadership. Dressed in desert fatigues, row upon row of Iraqi cadets sit intently in the bleachers; those who are graduating this day are standing in formation on the floor.

The graduates soon begin the ceremonial parade with a series of fast-paced, coordinated marching. Stomping and shouting commands in unison, the young officers appear focused and disciplined.

The list of VIPs looking on appear impressed -- from NATO, the Supreme Commander in Europe, General James Jones, to Lieutenant General Martin Dempsey, the United States' top trainer of Iraqi troops. And from the Iraqi Army, Staff Brigadier Mousa is the highest-ranking officer.

Of course, since this graduation is the first of its kind in the new Iraq, the ceremony does not proceed without a few hitches. There are long delays in the action during which people seem confused, and while the brass band is spirited, it is also woefully off-key.

For us, the climax of the afternoon is not the parading, but the aftermath of the ceremony. The new officers, beaming with pride, embrace each other and their instructors. They have gone through a rigorous process -- nearly half of those who began the curriculum dropped out. We are told that for some of the young men it was too difficult, others had their family threatened by insurgents.

But those that stuck through the process tell us why they have enlisted. Lieutenant Zyod Sami says: "I am proud of myself and my friends. We are very happy. I am serving because I love Iraq and Iraq is my country." Another new officer tells me: "It is my duty to fight and to be in a warzone; to defeat the terrorists who are inside Iraq."

Leaving the academy, after witnessing the day's events, one cannot help but feel some optimism about Iraq's future. These young men are only a tiny pecentage of the population, but they uniformly appear focused and intent on bringing peace and stability to their nation. They seem to have a clear purpose.

The return from Rustamiyah is slowed by the disconcerting and, ubiquitous traffic jams around Baghdad. As we wait for the American soldiers to create a pathway for the convoy, through the bottleneck, small children wave to us; but older men glare menacingly, and some gesticulate at us from their cars.

One particular elderly man, his face worn and weary, stares blankly at us. He takes a long puff on his cigarette. He seems accustomed to the familiar scene of American military convoys disrupting his day.

Joe and I are finally dropped off, and we head directly to meet with our security team, and make our way back to the compound. On the road toward our house, a group of men surround a stopped taxi. They wave their arms and call for help.

We see in the passenger seat a man who appears seriously injured. Our security guards go to help. We learn that the man was caught up in an attack minutes before, not far from here. A car bomb, followed by a suicide bomber, ripped through a coffee shop in central Baghdad. He was a bystander. Lying wounded on the street at the scene of the blast, the taxi driver picked him up and drove him to this point. We are told that he has been hit by shrapnel, and is bleeding internally. An ambulance is called for him.

We carry on, and head back toward our house, the day's events reminding us once again that optimism in Iraq's future is often swiftly tempered by the reality of Iraq's violent and chaotic present.

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