The Wall Street Journal
Plan to Sell Iraqis M-16s
Triggers New Controversy
U.S. Provides the Guns,
But Training Is Lacking;
Upgrade From the AK-47
By YOCHI J. DREAZEN and GREG JAFFE
October 8, 2007
CAMP TAJI, Iraq -- In this war-ravaged country, a man is often measured by the make of his gun.
When Iraqi soldier Abbas Ali Eadan picked up his brand new, U.S.-made M-16 rifle in August at this sprawling base north of Baghdad, his pride was palpable.
Courtesy of U.S. Army/Staff Sgt. Jon Cupp
Iraqi soldiers practice disassembling and cleaning their newly issued M-16s.
"I can put a cigarette in an ashtray and hit it with my M-16 from far away, like a sniper," boasted the 39-year-old. "The terrorists may have rockets and grenades, but only the Iraqi army has M-16s."
This spring, after years of requests from senior Iraq politicians and generals, the U.S. began quietly converting the Iraqi army over to the M-16, the main rifle for U.S. soldiers for more than 50 years. According to the Pentagon, the Iraqis have thus far purchased about 21,000 of the rifles, worth roughly $27 million, from Colt Defense LLC. Current plans allow for the Iraqis to eventually buy 123,544 of the American-made firearms.
The shift to M-16s is stoking a debate about how the new Iraqi army should be equipped. The M-16 is a far more accurate weapon than the AK-47 assault rifle the Iraqis relied on through decades of fighting. But it's also tougher to maintain and could strain the Iraqis' supply and maintenance systems. More to the point, the Iraqi army is riven with conflicting loyalties, leading many in the U.S. military to worry that the very weapons the U.S. is supplying could be turned against them some day.
"There has been a lot of anxiety about having modern assault rifles fall into the hands of terrorists," says Col. Michael Clark, who advises the Iraqi ground command in Baghdad. "The M-16 is just a much, much better weapon…It can do real damage."
The argument over the M-16 is part of a broader issue that has dogged U.S. efforts to rebuild the Iraqi military since the beginning of the war: Should the U.S. seek to model Iraqi forces after its own -- and in the process familiarize soldiers with advanced, modern American equipment? Or should it simply teach the Iraqi army to better use the weapons and vehicles it already possesses?
During Saddam Hussein's rule, Iraq relied on Soviet-made helicopters, tanks, MiG fighter jets and artillery. Most of that equipment fell into disrepair after the first Gulf War in 1991. After U.S. forces toppled Mr. Hussein in 2003, the armaments were further destroyed or looted.
Having to rebuild the Iraqi army from scratch, the Americans initially equipped the country's forces with confiscated guns and tens of thousands of new AK-47s purchased from Eastern Europe.
Cheap, plentiful and easy to use, the Russian-designed AK-47 has been a staple for armies, warlords and militias of developing countries around the globe. It was the Iraqi army's primary firearm under the country's late deposed leader, Mr. Hussein. In a recent report, the World Bank found that the AKs are still the weapon of choice for poor armies and insurgents because of their "ease of operation, robustness to mistreatment and negligible failure rate."
The M-16, meanwhile, has become an important symbol of a modern Iraq.
"The M-16 elevates the morale of our soldiers before they fight the enemy, because they know it gives them strength," says Maj. Gen. Abdullah Mohammed Kahmees al-Dafaee, who commands all Iraqi ground forces. "It is a new Iraqi army, so we should have new weapons."
Low-ranking Iraqi soldiers in the field would eye their U.S. advisers' M-16s and complain that they would never be more than a second-rate army so long as they carried aging AK-47s. Senior Iraqi officials pressed top U.S. officials to let them buy M-16s, as well as a trove of other more modern equipment.
Throughout 2004, then-Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi urged top U.S. civilian and military officials in Iraq to provide the country's armed forces with American-made tanks, helicopters and planes that would cow insurgents and inspire Iraqi soldiers. Mr. Allawi gained some support from Pentagon officials, who feared that the lightly armed Iraqi troops were being outgunned by insurgents.
Using its own funds -- primarily from oil revenues -- Baghdad last year agreed to buy more than $3 billion in American equipment by the end of 2007. By law, Iraq or any other foreign government wishing to purchase U.S.-made weapons must first get approvals from Congress, the Pentagon and the State Department. The U.S. cleared the way for Iraq to buy armored Humvees, cargo trucks, and communications gear directly from U.S. military contractors. It refused Iraqi requests for more-advanced weapons like M-1 tanks and Apache attack helicopters, citing fears that the weaponry could fall into the hands of insurgents or be used to menace Iraq's neighbors.
More than anything else, the Iraqis wanted M-16s. The Iraqis received their first shipment, of 20,000 guns, earlier this year. Another 21,000 are due to arrive this fall. So far, the U.S. has distributed about 2,400 of the firearms, issuing them only after Iraqis have completed a short training course on the weapon's use and maintenance.
One sweltering afternoon this month, a few dozen Iraqi soldiers in T-shirts and mismatched uniforms made their way to a bustling warehouse here to swap their AK-47s for shrink-wrapped M-16s. The guns were so new they still had "Colt Defense LLC" stickers on their stocks.
After picking up the guns and ammunition magazines, the Iraqi soldiers ambled over to a plastic table and put their fingers on a small glass scanner connected to a Panasonic laptop, which took digital copies of their fingerprints. Iraqi attendants digitally scanned each soldier's iris, took digital recordings of his voice and photographed each soldier with his new rifle.
"My name is Wadih Mohammed. I was born in 1971," one stocky Iraqi lieutenant said into a microphone. The biometric information was burnt onto compact disks and then given to Iraqi authorities as a way of safekeeping the weapons. If one goes missing, the solider assigned the weapon will be held accountable.
The Iraqis spent a total of just three days learning how to fire the weapons, instead of the almost two weeks of training that U.S. soldiers undertake. "In a perfect world, they would get more than three days of training," says Master Sgt. Varon Martinez, a senior member of a military training team here. "But nothing in Iraq is perfect."
The classes were taught by instructors from Military Professionals Resources Inc., a subsidiary of defense contractor L-3 Communications Corp. The company received a $3 million contract to train the Iraqis at Taji through the end of 2007.
"Gentlemen, let's talk about the characteristics of the M-16, from top to bottom," MPRI instructor Jeffrey Goodman said to the Iraqi soldiers gathered around him on a dusty firing range here early one morning.
Mr. Goodman, clad in olive-green pants and suspenders, told the troops that an AK round is narrow so that it typically goes straight through the enemy, limiting damage to tissue. An M-16 round spins much faster and tumbles when it makes contact with the enemy so that "it causes mass casualty in the body."
An Army retiree with 20-odd years in the military, Mr. Goodman demonstrated how to disassemble the weapon and clean it piece by piece, removing any rust and dirt. By the end of the second day, the Iraqis were able to take the weapon apart and reassemble it when they followed along Mr. Goodman's step-by-step demonstration. But many struggled with taking apart the M-16's firing mechanism, which contains numerous small parts.
There were other snafus. The Iraqi supply depot failed to order enough ammunition for the M-16s for all the classes. The first two groups of soldier-students also faced significant shortages of cleaning kits, essential to making the M-16s work. The M-16 is a far more complex weapon than the AK-47 -- with its many springs and pins -- and requires regular upkeep and cleaning or it will cease firing. A stockpile of spare parts must be kept on hand, adding to the strain on the Iraqi army's troubled supply system.
On the third day of training, Mr. Goodman told the Iraqis to lie flat on their stomachs, balance their M-16s on a short stack of sand bags and prepare to fire at paper targets stapled to wooden backstops a short distance away.
When he asked the Iraqi troops where they should shoot, they jubilantly yelled, "B'nose," Arabic for "in the center." Mr. Goodman directed them to open fire.
Mr. Goodman shook his head as several Iraqis gripped the M-16s as if they were AK-47s, causing their bullets to miss their targets by a long shot. "This is not a Kalashnikov!" he shouted, using the nickname for an AK-47. "You're using a precision weapon."
Some U.S. trainers say the switch to the M-16 will help improve the professionalism of the Iraqi force and its performance on the battlefield. Sgt. Martinez has noticed that Iraqi soldiers behave differently in firefights when they have the more-precise M-16. "I saw them crouch on one knee and aim the weapon rather than just spraying," he said. "It was like, 'Wait. If I aim I can actually hit something. I don't need to just spray.' "
When the Iraqi troops at Camp Taji finished test firing their M-16s at the rifle range, they gingerly laid down their rifles and began comparing their bullet-ridden paper targets. Slightly more than half of the Iraqi soldiers met the basic marksmanship standards needed to pass the course.
The remainder were ordered to show up the following day for a second chance -- although there were no real consequences for those who failed at both attempts. Starved for recruits, the Iraqi military rarely expels soldiers for technical lapses or ethical infractions.
Senior U.S. commanders like Lt. Gen. James Dubik say they are confident that the Iraqis will eventually learn to operate the M-16s effectively. But training them to use the new weapon will take time that the U.S. may not have.
A recent Government Accountability Office report found that the number of Iraqi army brigades capable of operating independently of U.S. forces had declined to six in July from 10 in March.
After the initial enthusiasm of getting the M-16 rifles wore off, some Iraqi soldiers began to complain that they missed their old AK-47s.
Ali Jassim, an Iraqi soldier who received his M-16 in August, worried that the gun's bullets, lighter than those used in AK-47s, won't be strong enough to quickly kill combatants. "To tell you the truth, I would prefer my old AK," Mr. Jassim said. "The M-16s may be better for Americans, but the AKs are better for Iraqis."
Write to Yochi J. Dreazen at firstname.lastname@example.org and Greg Jaffe at email@example.com
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