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New Iraqi Army Makes Its Debut

The initial battalion, 750 strong, is due to graduate from boot camp in a few weeks.

September 16, 2003|John Daniszewski | Times Staff Writer

KIRKUSH, Iraq — On a dusty plain, a squadron of rifle-toting men in camouflage forms a rough wedge that zigzags toward its objective, a small cluster of earthen mounds. In a deft set of maneuvers, the men fan out, flank the position, advance, and then completely overrun the two "enemy" defenders who roll over as though dead.

But like children playing war, the soldiers have merely mimed the action of firing their guns because their trainers didn't have blank ammunition for them to use.

Thus was the new Iraqi army -- recruited in July by the U.S.-led occupation authority -- presented publicly for the first time Monday.

The initial battalion, 750 strong, is due to graduate from nine weeks' training Oct. 4, becoming the seed of a new military force meant to succeed the 400,000-man army of ousted dictator Saddam Hussein.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday September 18, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 44 words Type of Material: Correction
Iraqi army -- An article in Tuesday's Section A about the new Iraqi military implied that the first battalion of recruits would be trained outside Iraq. The article should have said that a select group of young officers would be trained outside the country.

At a time when many Americans see the occupation of Iraq as not going well, the leisurely two-year buildup to a new Iraqi army has gone out the window.

At a well-orchestrated visit arranged for journalists, U.S. Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton, head of the coalition team overseeing formation of the new army, said that training of up to 40,000 soldiers is to be expedited, and completed in just one year. The accelerated timetable, he said, would be accomplished by taking younger officers from the old Iraqi army and giving them three to five months of officer training, so that they will, in turn, be able to train fellow Iraqis.

"Every Iraqi soldier that we train and get into the army represents a greater Iraqi security, which is why we're interested in getting this done as quickly as possible, so that Iraq can look to its own army for its own security and pride," Eaton said.

The first battalion being trained will have its own officers, but they will carry only light weapons and report to a coalition divisional commander, officials said. At first, the Iraqis will have only limited duties, looking after borders and military sites, said Brig. Jonathon Riley, a British army officer working with Eaton.

The training, which Eaton said would take place at an unspecified site outside Iraq, would be designed to "ensure the problems of the last regime are eliminated and that we get soldiers -- leaders -- who are going to train and develop soldiers the way we want them to," he said.

Eaton cited the example of the German army which, after the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and Germany's later reunification, absorbed members of the younger officer corps of the old East German army who were considered untainted by their former state's Marxist policies. Similarly, he said, young officers under Hussein are less likely to be sullied by Baathism.

About three-quarters of the inductees in the first battalion had been involved in some form of military or security service during Hussein's regime. But the recruits have been screened to exclude anyone of high standing in the Baath Party or those suspected of participating in crimes under the regime.

Inducted at recruiting centers in Basra, Baghdad and Mosul, they also reflect Iraq's religious and ethnic mix. The first battalion is about 60% Shiite, 25% Sunni, 10% ethnic Kurd and 5% from other minority groups.

Australian army Maj. Doug Cummings, an officer assigned to the project, said that there had been at least one case in which a Baathist secret policeman made it into the new force. But he said that individual was identified by a fellow recruit. "We checked it. It was legitimate, and so he was removed," he said.

In conversations with reporters, trainees praised the conditions and spirit of the new army.

A 19-year-old recruit from Basra, Ali Hassan, said he would have no difficulty fighting fellow Iraqis if they opposed the U.S. military presence. His hatred for Hussein's regime goes back to when his brother had his ears cut off for deserting the former army. He said he has no interest in any Iraqi who would like to bring Hussein back. "If it is a choice," he said, "I will fight with the American people against these Iraqis."

A burly sergeant recruited from Najaf agreed. "Now everyone is equal," said Akil Shakur Nasr Khazali, 36. "We want to say that we're all Iraqi, and we all are proud to be in the new Iraqi army."

The Kirkush base, in a desert area about 25 miles from the Iranian border, had been started by the Iraqis as a military base in the 1980s but was never completed.

When the Americans arrived to turn it into the first training camp for the new Iraqi army two months ago, the buildings were just shells, thoroughly looted, without doors on hinges or glass in the windows. They also lacked both heating and air conditioning.

Today, the barracks area has been finished, providing air-conditioned mess halls, fan-cooled rooms and indoor showers and toilets with running water. Two weeks ago, the coalition also finished a mosque for the soldiers.

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