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In a major shift of weaponry, the Iraqi army is crossing over from the AK-47 assault rifle to the American-made M-16 and M-4 rifles, U.S. military and Iraqi officials have confirmed.

The first class of Iraqi recruits has already been issued M-16s instead of AK-47s, American officials said, and as many as 1,600 Iraqi troops will be using the standard American-issue weapon by the end of May.

The U.S. command issued a statement saying that “the Iraqi government made the decision to crossover from standard AK-47 assault rifles as part of the reshaping of their military and security forces.”

Under the new program, officials said, Iraqi army officers will be issued M-4 rifles while rank-and-file soldiers will receive M-16A4 models.

The first Iraqi recruits to be issued M-16s were at the Camp Taji Regional Training Center, north of Baghdad.

Efforts to reach Iraqi defense officials about the switch in weaponry and the reasons for the change were unsuccessful Tuesday.

But in the release, the U.S. military said the change “is an upgrade to the individual soldier’s capabilities.”

“The M-16 has long been considered the world’s best rifle,” Lt. Col. Walter Easter, the Military Transition Team commander and adviser to the training center, was quoted as saying in the release. “There’s a high percentage of [Iraqi army recruits] who can shoot more accurately than we expected just because of the better weapon system that they have.”

The M-16 and M-4 use 5.56 mm rounds, while the AK-47 — the most ubiquitous assault rifle in the world — uses a heavier 7.62 mm round. According to weapons manufacturers, the M-16 is in use by 15 NATO countries and 80 other countries, including some in the Middle East like Lebanon.

Everyone from insurgents to security forces to civilians in Iraq have used the AK-47 for years. Thousands of the weapons have been looted or sold from military caches, and civilian families are allowed to have one AK-47 per household. The U.S. military has also purchased and imported new AK-47s to arm security forces in the country.

According to the U.S. military in Iraq, the M-16s and M-4s issued to Iraqi troops will be under heightened scrutiny.

Each Iraqi troop issued a new rifle must take it through a “biometric station,” where the soldier will be fingerprinted, given a retinal scan and photographed with the rifle and its serial number.

“Officials then transfer the information to a database in Baghdad, to ensure accountability and to prevent the weapon from ending up in the wrong hands,” the news release read.

Questions about the issuance of the new weapons — including how the move would affect, if in any way, U.S. troops operating with the Iraqis — were not answered by military officials by press time on Tuesday.

Representatives of Colt Defense, which manufactures M-16s for the U.S. military, did not respond to questions Tuesday.

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