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Last Updated: Friday, 18 May 2007, 12:28 GMT 13:28 UK
First steps to arming Iraq's soldiers
Providing the army with new weapons is an important part of the plan to modernise Iraq's security services and make them self-sufficient. The BBC's James Shaw went to the US army's Camp Taji, near Baghdad, to see one Iraqi squad receive their new M16 rifles.

Iraqi army rifles
So far fewer than 2,000 new M16s have been handed out

The convoy of four armoured Humvees and two black 4x4s rumbles down the highway heading north out of Baghdad.

Blue lights flash, sirens wail, the soldiers manning the turrets on top of the Humvees swing their machine-guns from side to side.

If a truck driver fails to pull over, the soldier in the vehicle ahead of us produces a handgun and points it directly at him.

Treacherous journey

This is how the US military in Iraq travels from the safety of the Green Zone in the centre of Baghdad to Camp Taji, a vast training and logistics base just north of the city.

On the northern edge of the city, a landscape of rubbish dumps opens up to the west. Dirt tracks weave through the heaps of smouldering refuse. Sometimes a figure is visible.

Cattle stand inside an enclosure improvised from wooden posts and strips of corrugated iron.

Iraqi army recruits receive their rifles
The aim is for the Iraqi army to achieve self-sufficiency
Then close to Taji our convoy is forced off the road by a traffic jam. The Humvees lurch down a steep incline.

The poles attached to their front bumpers to detect roadside bombs scrape into the sand and the convoy trundles through the scrub at the edge of the road until we've cleared the traffic jam.

Climbing back onto the carriageway, we head up onto an overpass and discover the reason for the congestion. One side of the road has been rendered unusable by a hole big enough to lose a car in. Torn steel rods hang from the concrete around the rim.

Ageing Kalashnikovs

The damage was done by an insurgent bomb just a few days ago, apparently part of a new tactic to destroy road links around the Iraqi capital.

We've come to Camp Taji to see Iraqi soldiers being issued with new weapons to replace their ageing Kalashnikovs. We find them outside a warehouse ripping open cardboard boxes and tearing the plastic wrapping off brand-new M16 carbines.

I was so happy when I opened the box and held the weapon and now I'm ready to go out and fight
Safa Hussein
Iraqi army recruit
The squad of about 50 men lines up for photos. One soldier holds his rifle still in its plastic wrapping. An officer hurriedly pulls it off. Then the soldiers gather in a huddle, waving their guns in the air and chanting: "We will crush the heads of the terrorists."

Safa Hussein is a 20-year-old recruit from Baghdad. He couldn't find a job after leaving school during the chaos which followed the fall of Saddam Hussein.

Finally he joined the army six months ago. "I joined to fight terrorism and to defend our country," he tells us through an interpreter. "I was so happy when I opened the box and held the weapon and now I'm ready to go out and fight."

Huge challenge

So far, fewer than 2,000 have been given M16s. The official strength of the Iraqi Army at the moment is more than 143,000.

Iraqi army recruits with their new rifles
The re-arming programme could take several years

The man in charge of re-arming the Iraqi soldiers is US Army Lieutenant Colonel Don Easter.

"We're looking at the entire Iraqi Army," he says.

"We're looking at a process that's going to take well beyond a year, and could be upward of two years, depending on if there are any pauses in the process throughout this time."

It is a mammoth task, but in itself only a small piece of the effort to modernise Iraq's security forces and make them self-sufficient.

And all this takes no account of the fact that pressure is mounting on President Bush to end the US involvement in Iraq.

That might mean disengagement from the country before this and many other programmes have been completed.




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