A promise of new leaders and equipment for Iraq's army
TIKRIT (AFP) Jan 06, 2005
Under a clear blue sky, the silver-haired Iraqi general marched forward and unrolled the red, black and white Iraqi flag.
Sheikhs in golden robes and US generals in beige fatigues watched from the red canopy review stand, marking Iraq's army day.
But it was more than just an ordinary holiday for the military as similar ceremonies unfolded across Iraq. The Iraqi national guard, a collection of 49 regional paramilitary battalions around the country, was being incorporated into the New Iraqi Army and structured as nine divisions.
It is the first time since the collapse of Saddam Hussein that the New Iraqi Army has actual divisional command, comparable to any fighting force in the world, where a general has a force of thousands of soldiers.
The plan is to build a 65,000-strong army by the end of 2005, according to the US military.
At the Taji base, south of Tikrit, the army unveiled its new mechanised brigade albeit with refurbished vehicles from the old army under the gaze of Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, Defence Minister Hazem al-Shaalan and Qassim Daoud, national security advisor.
"Building an army is a long and difficult mission," said Allawi. "Iraq has been liberated of Saddam, who turned the army into a tool of repression."
He said insurgents are targeting Iraqi security forces because they fear an organised and better-equipped army.
"Saddam's followers ... in coordination with enemies of Iraqis like gangs of criminals and killers along with groups of terrorists ... are targeting our national army and police members. These enemies are afraid to see Iraqi real army and police forces," the hard-nosed prime minister said.
But little of the new equipment was on display as a few hundred soldiers paraded with refurbished Russian-made tanks from the old army and even two jeeps that officers said were seized during recent raids on insurgents.
A brass band played "my homeland, my homeland."
In Baghdad, the number two commander of US ground troops said delays over the past six months in buying new equipment for Iraqi forces have now been overcome and that the focus was on recruiting the right leadership.
"We have begun to break the code," said Lieutenant General Thomas Metz. "The most important ingredient we are focused on is finding good leaders."
And the embodiment of this is supposed to be men like the red-beret wearing, golden-epauleted Lieutenant General Abdul Aziz Abdul.
In the heart of the Sunni Muslim Triangle, where Iraqi forces are regularly targeted by insurgents, Abdul will now command all former 11 national guard battalions in the provinces of Tamim, Diyala, Sulaimaniyah and Salahuddin.
Built like a piston, the Kurd who served in Saddam's army until the spring of 2003, praised the creation of the 4th Army Division as a quantum leap forward.
"We should have a well-integrated army," Abdul said. "We don't want things like in the past -- an army divided into small units, with their own independent leadership."
The commander was alluding to both Saddam's multiple state security organs and the fragmented military units formed under America's watch since September 2003 when the first new army battalions and Iraqi national guard units came on line.
Both current and one former Iraqi security officials have warned AFP that the current Iraqi military structure has failed because no steps had been taken to build divisions, so units were thoroughly dependent on American leadership.
And even now there could still be confusion.
On top of the former national guard units that have become part of the army, there are 17 New Iraqi Army battalions that do not belong to any formal division.
Instead, they continue to be sent out by the defense ministry to fight within a US framework.
In Tikrit, US Major General John Batiste praised the Iraqi soldiers' resolve.
But he acknowledged, while divisions were now formed, it would take time before they would truly be an independent army.
About Abdul, Batiste said: "By summertime, he (Abdul) should be ... less and less dependent on me."
But the general could not give a concrete timeline for when the Iraqi security force would finally be ready. "I'm there to assist him as a backstop. That's my objective."
The original Iraqi army was founded in 1921 and was a revered national institution. Its dissolution by the US-led occupation in 2003 is considered one of the catalysts for the insurgency.
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