Tuesday, December 27, 2005

The emerging Iraqi army is in dire need of more armored vehicles, an issue largely lost in the two-year debate over U.S. soldiers and Marines who at one time lacked protective gear.

Defense sources say the required number of armored vehicles has not kept pace with the Iraqi army’s growth, leaving exposed, newly minted troops to conduct patrols in thin-skinned trucks.

“One of the main things is they don’t have much armor at all,” said retired Coast Guard officer Michael Kearney, a defense contractor who is working to bolster the force. “Their people are running around in pickup trucks, and they are getting nailed.”

Mr. Kearney ran a program to get quickly to the Iraqis 77 refurbished T-72 tanks in time for security duty in the Dec. 15 parliamentary elections.

The Soviet-era tanks, shipped by sea and then trucked through Kuwait, gave the 9th Mechanized Division, for the first time, a 45-ton, cannon-brandishing tank to take on insurgents who daily try to kill Iraqi soldiers.

The tanks were greeted like saviors when they arrived at the sprawling Taji army base north of Baghdad in November.

Mr. Kearney works for Defense Solutions, a Washington-based consulting firm and international arms dealer that won a $5 million contract to refurbish the tanks. The machines were donated by Hungary, which had agreed to get rid of them under a previous arms agreement.

In a deal that showed European countries cooperating with the U.S. on rebuilding Iraq’s military, the tanks were refitted in Hungary, a former Soviet satellite and now a NATO ally of the U.S., and then shipped from Greece to Kuwait. The Arab emirate sweetened the shipment with 36 Soviet-designed BMP armored personnel carriers.

The boat docked in Kuwait, and the tanks rolled off, their Iraqi flags covered up so not to offend a country briefly conquered by Iraqi armor in 1990. Truck convoys then transported the tanks to Taji.

“The fact of the matter was not one convoy was attacked,” Mr. Kearney said. “I think that says we are winning.”

Lt. Col. Frederick Wellman, spokesman for the U.S. command that is equipping and training the new Iraqi security forces under a two-year, $10 billion plan, said more vehicles are on the way and other NATO countries are chipping in.

“I remind you that the Iraqi Army is a primarily light infantry force and their vehicles are used as transport to where they will operate and not as fighting vehicles,” Col. Wellman said in an e-mail.

“It is not possible to armor them in a timely or cost effective manner and accomplish the building of an effective force in time. It would cost multiple billions of dollars and use nearly all manufacturers of armored vehicles to build a very difficult to manage mixed fleet of vehicles for the future of Iraq.”

Fact sheets provided by the Multi-National Security Transition Command-Iraq show the 220,000-strong Iraqi security forces, which includes the army and paramilitary police, have received about 600 armored vehicles and have a requirement for nearly 3,000 more, including more than 1,500 armored U.S. Humvee utility vehicles.

Today, the Iraqi security forces rely on an international mix of armored vehicles — the American Humvee, the Pakistani Talhas and Mohafiz, the French Panhard and the Soviet BMP.

Iraq needs more, and former Soviet satellites such as Hungary are the logical place to get them.

Under Saddam Hussein, Iraq was one of the Soviet Union’s best customers for tanks, artillery, jet fighters and missiles — all weapons badly depleted by a long war with Iran and two wars with U.S.-led alliances. Cost is important, too. Iraq could acquire the 77 T-72 tanks for a mere $5 million — about the cost of one U.S.-made M1A1 Abrams tank.

“They don’t need that level of sophistication,” said retired Army Col. Timothy Ringgold, Defense Solutions’ chief executive officer.

“They need equipment they already know how to operate and equipment they can afford. The Soviet stuff is very, very solid technically,” he said. “It’s soldier-proof because you’re not going to break it driving around.”

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