TIKRIT, Iraq — The crack of AK-47s Tuesday was an unfamiliar sound at the dust-blown Contingency Operating Base Speicher shooting range, where M-16s and M-4s are the norm. And it was Iraqi, rather than American, soldiers taking aim at cardboard cutouts propped up against bullet-riddled 2-by-4s.
The weapons training was the culmination of three days of military training for six noncommissioned officers with the Tikrit-based 4th Iraqi Army Division and the beginning of a program aimed at training more Iraqi soldiers in the coming weeks.
Some Iraqi army units still have a ragtag feel — the six officers showed up with mismatching helmets and body armor — so instilling an increased sense of professionalism is one goal of the program.
Under the recently passed status of forces agreement between Iraq and the United States, American soldiers must pull back from Iraqi cities and towns by June 30 and be out of Iraq by 2011, adding a sense of urgency to readying Iraqi security forces to operate on their own.
Working with officers first, U.S. trainers hope Iraqi leaders will become teachers, rendering Iraqi forces more independent.
It’s the latest step in a painstaking process of rebuilding the army from scratch after the U.S. made the controversial move of disbanding the Iraqi military following the invasion of 2003.
"The end state is they man the (shooting) range on their own," said U.S. Army Maj. Kevin Runkle, a member of the Military Transition team working with the 4th Iraqi Army Division.
The program includes instruction on driving at night, using night-vision goggles, medical training and a shooting range course.
In the next few weeks, two groups of 50 rank-and-file soldiers are scheduled to undergo similar training at Speicher, with the six Iraqi noncommissioned officers pitching in with their American counterparts as teachers.
"The more training we get them, the faster they get trained up, the faster we get home to our families," said 1st Lt. Dan O’Connor, a Boston soldier with the 3rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division Brigade Support Battalion.
Iraqi army Sgt. Maj. Abdul Hussein Ali said his troops have never had similar training and that he will take his lessons back to his unit.
"Of course this training is good for us … so in the future, when the coalition forces leave we can take care of Iraq," he said.
American units are training Iraqis in everything from combat to logistics.
According to the Pentagon’s latest quarterly report on the war, around 560,000 of an authorized 628,000 Iraqi security forces have been "trained," though some analysts have questioned how effective the units really are.