Maj. Jimmy Brownlee dons a flak vest, helmet, rubber water bags, seven magazines of ammunition with 30 rounds each and two weapons when he leaves his base south of Baghdad and heads out 28 miles to a patrol base on the Tigris River.

Excluding weapons, he is carrying an extra 80 pounds on his 5-foot-10, 190-pound frame as he travels in a convoy of Humvees through the arid countryside and rural farm villages.

At Patrol Base Murray he, his commander and others meet with local Iraqis and Iraqi government officials to see which needs are being met and which ones aren't.

Unlike Brownlee's Forward Operating Base Kalsu, the outpost has no flushing toilets, no running water and no refrigerators.

"It's pretty austere," he said. "It does not have any of the luxuries I have here (at FOB Kalsu)."

Brownlee and a contingent of higher-ranking officials from his base occasionally meet with local sheiks and council members. Someone from his unit meets with them at least once a week as well.

"Communication is one big reason for our success. We talk about the government, health, education, fuel and security," he said.

"After about an hour we broke bread with them on one occasion when they had prepared a feast," he said. As is Iraqi custom for this meal of mutton and rice, the Americans and Iraqis didn't use utensils but tore off pieces of bread to pick up the meal with their hands.

They met on the patrol base at what once was an extravagant vacation house thought to have belonged to one of Saddam Hussein's sons. Every window is covered with sandbags in case of an explosion, and the few Army generator-powered lights inside provide dim lighting. Because they didn't want to take down maps of ongoing Army operations and because of the large number of people at the gathering, they met and ate outside.

"It was hot, and we were pouring sweat," Brownlee said. "They don't mind being outside. They are used to it."

Americans are slowly helping local Iraqis with contracts to build more generators, pump more water and create more electricity.

"They are concerned about power, but they are more concerned about water getting to their farms," Brownlee said. Iraqis had access to water before the war started, but the conflict interrupted supplies and equipment maintenance. The old system is slowly being replaced.

Because of rolling blackouts, which make power available only six to 10 hours a day for Iraqis, it is not uncommon to see families sleeping on their flat-roof houses in the summer to stay cool, he said.

Brownlee prefers to travel by Humvee because it gives him a ground view of the land as opposed to what he can see from the "blur of a helicopter," as he put it.

"You see people's faces, whether they are herding sheep or plucking something they are growing in the fields," he said. "We have different cultures and we are different people, but everyone wants safety and security."

The threat of an attack is always present, but Brownlee hopes the worst is behind the troops.

"When I got here, we couldn't go a couple of days without hitting an IED (improvised explosive device) on the road," he said. "They are still common, but we just don't see as many of them now as we did when we first got here. We have successfully eroded their resources, making it harder for them to make IEDs. I don't think we are at the point of saying we have won this war or anything like that, but the road ahead looks promising."