US shifting guard duty to former Iraqi soldiers

US troops are training recruits in several cities to protect government facilities.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Waiting in the gutted classroom, the Iraqi security-guard wannabes titter like a group of children on the first day of school - which it is.

Most were hardened soldiers in Saddam Hussein's military machine. But now they are lining up in the southern city of Najaf to be $2-a-day security guards for the post-Hussein government.

Recruiting for the Facility Protection Service (FPS) is now under way throughout Iraq. US Marines have trained 1,000 Iraqis in Najaf alone, plus this latest batch of 200. For Iraq's US-led occupation authority, the FPS program tackles two problems at once: It gets US troops out of the business of deploying at every government structure in Iraq, while providing work for former soldiers - a constituency that Anglo-American rulers here want to hold a stake in the new system.

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"We thank the Americans for saving us from the last regime, but this is our country, and we can protect it better than they can," says Nadhim Mohamed Nahi, who spent 28 years in the Iraqi Army, and now is out of work. "We are happy to have this job - they are training us to guard ministries, schools, and hospitals against Baathist attacks."

Yet another US soldier was killed and half a dozen wounded early Monday morning in a multiple rocket propelled grenade attack on a US convoy in Baghdad, bringing the total killed in hostile fire to 32 since President Bush declared the end of major combat on May 1.

Troops in the holy city of Najaf say they have made a good start here, because Shiite Muslim Iraqis - who bore a large measure of Mr. Hussein's wrath for decades - are largely "friendly" to US forces.

Trainees are taught how to search vehicles, apprehend people, and take them to the Iraqi police during their three-day training session. There are classes on weapons handling, ethics, and first aid.

"Iraqis feel a sense of security, having their own people doing this work," says Capt. Tom LaChance, a US Army civil- affairs officer in Najaf. "It's not like the United States, where they can call 911."

The trainees receive $20 pay from the US for the three-day session, half of which is meant to go toward new uniforms. Iraq's reformed ministries are expected to have security budgets that will eventually pay such guards. Formulating and approving the budget will fall to the newly minted governing council in Baghdad.

Of the 4,600 guards expected to be trained for the Najaf province, nearly one-third are earmarked for three shifts daily at each of 500 schools in the area.

Ahead of the game

Compared with other cities, Najaf is ahead of the game. US forces reported on Saturday that they had received more than 445 applications for the next FPS training class in the other Shiite holy city of Karbala, south of Baghdad.

And in the flash point Sunni Muslim city of Fallujah, west of Baghdad - where US troops pulled back from most positions over the weekend, in accord with Iraqi police concerns that the US presence made them more of a target - some 223 FPS candidates were screened. So far in Fallujah, 68 have completed training.

The US military doesn't provide weapons, but guards who have their own guns are issued a permission-to-carry card.

"The Iraqis are eager to be here - the key is to have a job again," says 2nd Lt. Paul Kasich, the US Marine platoon commander in charge of 37 American trainers.

The setting for the school is hardly luxurious. Window and door frames in the Al-Qods jail and police academy have been torn out, leaving gaping holes in the walls, and light fixtures are gone. Trainees spend their first day being interviewed and vetted, and are given military rations and water.

Besides a physical fitness test, candidates must sign two declarations to show that their loyalties to the former regime are gone. "I expressly reject and denounce the Baath Party and Saddam Hussein and his regime, as well as my previous association with it," reads one statement that must be signed and then countersigned by two witnesses.

The same declaration requires a "pledge to cooperate fully with the Coalition Provisional Authority, in serving the Iraqi people....[and] will obey the law of Iraq and all proclamations, orders and instructions" of the CPA.

US military officials say the Iraqi reaction has encouraged them, though some habits are hard to break.

"The whole Iraqi system was based on authoritarian leadership," says Captain LaChance. "Every time they want to do something, they come here for a permission letter or authorization, but there is no need. It baffles them, but hopefully they will catch on soon."

Ethics and courtesy

Trainees are also asked to sign a second document, a "code of conduct" for the FPS that focuses on ethical behavior and courtesy.

"I will never abuse the trust and authority I have been given," the letter reads. "I will not lie, steal, or tolerate those who do. I will remain alert and vigilant on watch," and "be respectful but firm and forceful...and treat everyone with respect."

The US Marines aren't starting totally from scratch. In fact, some remnants of the last regime are useful to the new guards. Painted on the walls of this old training academy are the admonitions adhered to by professional soldiers everywhere. There are Koranic verses about the virtues of hard work, as well as slogans telling the soldiers to obey and salute their officers, and keep their clothes and equipment in good working order.

Near one classroom exit, where a 3-foot-tall mirror was once screwed into the wall, is a question painted by the former regime in red: "Does my uniform look good?"

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