NASIRIYAH, Iraq — They're butchers, bakers and fast-food makers with Russian rifles and mismatched uniforms. They hail from Arizona, Syria and Norway and they're here to forge a new Iraq.
As the long-feared armies and security tentacles of Saddam Hussein's government are replaced or melt away, the U.S.-funded Free Iraqi Forces hope to fill the vacuum and become the heart of the new army.
They have a ways to go.
At the Air Base 71 Imam Ali Camp outside Nasiriyah, several hundred men line up for morning roll call after their commander barks three times for them to get a move on.
Some have guns raided from the Iraqi military. Many of their pants don't match their brown "chocolate chip" camouflage shirts. Several wear sandals in shades of black, blue and orange and almost all chat happily, as they stand in their wavy lines.
"They're not the Wehrmacht," said Zaab Sethna, an advisor to Iraqi National Congress head Ahmad Chalabi, in reference to the German armed forces of World War II. "But their motivation is very high."
Chalabi is camping out in one of the base's partially destroyed buildings to show his support for the troops.
A meeting Tuesday of representatives from inside and outside the country will be the first in Iraq aimed at forming a government. Security will be a major item on the agenda.
There are already 700 troops of the Free Iraqi Forces in Nasiriyah, but volunteers are arriving every day. Abdul Hammid Husona, a 36-year-old local dignitary, waits at the gate, saying he represents 50,000 villagers interested in signing up.
Most already in the ranks say they're motivated by freedom, patriotism and a desire to vanquish the Hussein regime. But the clothes, U.S.-packaged meal rations and promise of $150 a month are tempting perks in a devastated economy.
"We want justice and freedom," said Majid Hussani, 33, an Iraqi exile recently returned from Syria, before adding: "Until now, they haven't paid us anything and we're not very happy about that. They told us they'd pay us."
Funded under the Iraq Liberation Act passed by Congress in 1998, the fighters are overseen by 200 U.S. Special Forces and other troops who drive them around, feed and clothe them, train them and confer with them on which patrols to take.
As trucks entered the camp Sunday, a rumor spread that new automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades had arrived from the United States. Some of the commanders weren't sure that was such a good idea, however.
"We're all familiar with Kalashnikovs," said Abdul Hamid Salman. "Every Iraqi knows how to use [the rifles]. They're simple, reliable and all over Iraq. Anything else could make people confused."
The Free Iraqi Forces have mounted patrols into neighboring villages since their arrival from northern Iraq aboard U.S. C-17 aircraft a week ago. As they left the camp Saturday, they waved their rifles in the air and chanted "My Home Iraq!"
American soldiers are training them to man checkpoints, although the front gate of their own base is rather porous as children, religious figures, donkeys and the curious wander in and out.
Just outside the camp -- heavily bombed by allied forces during the 1991 Persian Gulf War -- job-seekers, supplicants and those attracted by the whiff of power gather to chat and meet Chalabi. Inside the barbed-wire fence, old vehicles from bygone battles sit without their doors, wheels, wires or pride after years of neglect and harsh weather.
The fighters are nothing if not excited and self-confident. Several of the recruits -- ranging in age from 18 to their mid-50s -- said they didn't need training given past experience.
"There was training, but I couldn't spare the time from my business," said Salman, 51, a taxi driver, recently of Phoenix. "Plus, I was in the Iraqi army from 1970 to 1972."
Lines of authority are a work in progress. "Everyone has the same rank," said Abdul Salam Kubisi, who joined three months ago. "It's not like the army. It's more like brothers, which is much better."
A U.S. Special Forces soldier watches the Iraqis line up from an all-terrain vehicle. "The problem is, they really don't have platoon commanders," he said. "There are a few officers, but they're only giving orders over very big groups."
Many of the uniforms -- winter coats, wool gloves and forest-green pants that stand out in the desert -- were shipped from Hungary, where some of the Iraqi exiles underwent training shortly before the war. "My boss gave me these," said Mohamed Tilb, 29, gesturing to his gloves in the 90-degree heat. "Maybe sometime later I'll need them."
The men come filled with hope of being part of the new Iraq, having left day jobs as taxi drivers, security guards, small shop owners and kaseb -- a catch-all phrase meaning "wheeler-dealers."
The ragtag group arrived too late to fight much of the war, having been dropped into Nasiriyah after the U.S. juggernaut had blown through.