Tuesday, September 16, 2003

The first recruits to the fledgling New Iraqi Army showed off their fighting skills on Monday at a desert camp where the U.S.-led occupiers hope to turn out 35,000 soldiers in a year

An initial batch of 750 soldiers at the Kirkush camp, near the Iranian border northeast of Baghdad, included ex-members of Saddam Hussein's disbanded army and Kurdish Peshmerga rebels who until five months ago had been fighting one another.

''That was Saddam's fault,'' said Abubaker Mohammad, who fought for 11 years with the Peshmerga. ''Now we are one family, Arabs and Kurds together, working for a new army, a new Iraq.''

Saddam's vast army, thought to number as many as 400,000, collapsed in the weeks after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March. Some fought and died, most turned and fled.

Washington decided to disband the army and hired a U.S. company, Vinnell, to train a new force from scratch.

The first battalion of 750 in the New Iraqi Army is near to finishing an eight-week initial training course at Kirkush.

Risking retribution from anti-U.S. Iraqi guerrillas who often target ''collaborators,'' 3,000 more would-be soldiers have signed up at three recruitment centres in Baghdad, Basra in the south, and Mosul in the north, U.S. officers said.

''I am not scared. Saddam's people are gone and they will never come back. We in the new army will make sure of that,'' said recruit Saman Talabani, clasping a gun to his chest.

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