- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 5, 2003

KIR KUSH, Iraq — A battalion of newly retrained Iraqi soldiers, marching to the beat of a U.S. Army band, yesterday completed a nine-week basic course to become the first unit of a revived military.

The 700 graduating troops, including 65 officers, will be the core “of an army that will defend its country and not oppress it,” Iraq’s American administrator, L. Paul Bremer, said at this desert training site.

In Baghdad, 50 miles to the southwest, a quietly assembling bureaucracy will do much of the job of a Defense Ministry but without the name, an American general said.

Ex-soldiers of ousted dictator Saddam Hussein’s army rioted in Baghdad during the ceremony in Kir Kush, citing lack of jobs and slow payment of monthly stipends promised by the U.S.-led coalition authorities. One protester was killed and two dozen were injured after Iraqi police and U.S. troops opened fire, authorities said.

About three-quarters of the recruits to the new Iraqi army who were graduated here also were soldiers of the 400,000-man force that fell apart under U.S.-British attacks six months ago.

President Bush praised the graduation ceremony as a milestone in rebuilding Iraq.

“For decades, Iraq’s army served the interests of a dictator. Today, a new army is serving the Iraqi people,” the president said in his weekly radio address.

In less than a year, Mr. Bush said, “Iraq will have a 40,000-member military force, trained and dedicated to protecting their fellow citizens.”

A sovereign Iraq government is to decide on the eventual size and makeup of its military.

The first battalion’s commander, Col. Ali Naim Jaber, said Iraq needs an army of at least 120,000 men within three years. But one of his junior officers, Capt. Zuhair Mahmoud, a 21-year veteran, said size doesn’t matter.

“Before we had a big army, but it had no heart,” Capt. Mahmoud said, adding that he was “very happy” that Kurds and Arabs — adversaries under Saddam — would now work together in the embryonic force.

He and his men found the human rights training, unheard of in the old days, to be particularly worthwhile, Capt. Mahmoud said.

Under a harsh midday sun, Col. Jaber, ceremonial sword drawn, paraded his six companies before a reviewing stand filled with Iraqi and American dignitaries, including Mr. Bremer and the top brass of the U.S. command in Iraq.

The Iraqi troops, AK-47 assault rifles angled on their shoulders, stepped along smartly to standard marches played by the U.S. 4th Infantry Division band.

“Our army will be devoted to the defense of our nation and all our citizens, regardless of ethnic background,” Iyad Allawi, current president of the interim, U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council, told the graduates. He denounced the old army as a force that “terrorized the people” and ensured Saddam’s grip on power.

Mr. Bremer formally dissolved the Iraqi army in May, and the Iraqi council excluded the Defense Ministry when it reconstituted an interim Cabinet.

Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton, who is in overall charge of training, said before yesterday’s ceremony that a new Iraqi body will address the bureaucratic demands of an emerging army, such as recruiting soldiers and awarding contracts. It will not be a defense ministry, he said.

“It’s the Defense Support Agency. This is the beginning of a department of the army. That organization will stand up very, very quickly,” Maj. Gen. Eaton said, probably within a month.

The Bush administration proposes to spend $2 billion to rebuild the Iraqi army in the next year. A second battalion was to begin training here today under a 140-member force of civilian instructors, most of them former U.S. military men, from the Vinnell Corp., a U.S. defense contractor.

The new units, with starting pay of $60 a month for privates, initially will take on largely passive defense duties, such as providing border security and staffing road checkpoints.

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