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MOSUL, Iraq — The soldiers from the Iraqi army’s 2nd Division gawked at it, posed for pictures with it, rubbed their hands on it and then stood in crisp form when U.S. troops introduced them last week to their newest weapon.
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In a two-story warehouse on the grounds of an old Iraqi ammunition storage site stood a confidence-builder for the beleaguered Iraqi army: an M198 howitzer cannon. For Iraqi soldiers yearning for people’s respect, the arrival of American-made artillery was a big step toward building the pride that is essential to any effective army.
“This is so much technology, powerful,” said Ali Hadi, 42, a specialist in his division’s new artillery regiment. “Things are going to get better.’’

The new 155mm guns are part of a multibillion-dollar effort to upgrade the Iraqi army ahead of the scheduled withdrawal of the remaining U.S. forces by Dec. 31. Among growing shipments of American-made weapons to Iraq are M1A1 Abrams tanks, M113 armored personnel carriers and patrol boats.

In a country where eager soldiers still believe a bigger weapon makes a bigger man, the wiping out of its artillery capability in the U.S.-led 2003 invasion has never sat well with Iraqi commanders. Until now, said Col. Alaa A. Abdalrida, of the 2nd Division, “without the Americans, I couldn’t defend the country.”

The new artillery, Abdalrida said, “will ensure the Iraqi army is no less than other armies.”

Under Saddam Hussein, Iraq’s artillery capabilities were among the best in the Middle East, forming the backbone of its army’s battle plan in the war with Iran in the 1980s. In the run-up to the 1991 Persian Gulf War and the 2003 invasion, U.S. military planners feared that Hussein would arm his artillery with chemical or biological warheads, concerns that later proved unfounded.

Ultimately, Hussein’s artillery was no match for U.S. warplanes, tanks and artillery, and much of Iraq’s heavy ordnance was destroyed in the 2003 invasion. What remained was decommissioned, fell into disrepair or lacked ammunition for use by the new Iraqi army, according to U.S. and Iraqi military officials.

The post-Hussein Iraqi army has instead relied on short- and medium-range mortars. Because Iraq still lacks warplane and missile capabilities, experts have voiced doubts that it could repel an invasion without U.S. help.

The first howitzers arrived this spring, and soldiers from the U.S. Army’s 25th Infantry Division have finished training Iraqi soldiers in Diyala, east of Baghdad, on how to operate the cannons. The field artillery unit of the U.S. Army’s 1st Cavalry Division, based in Fort Hood, Tex., began the training here in northern Iraq on Monday, at the Ghuzali Eagle Training Center.

“They will now basically have what we have,” said Lt. Rory R. Garcia of the 1st Cavalry Division field artillery unit, which is training Hadi’s regiment in how to operate and maintain the weapons.

American military officials said the U.S. government withheld some features of the howitzers considered classified. But they said the 42-foot-long, computer-guided weapons will cover up to 13 miles, more than triple the range of Iraq’s largest mortar.

The weapon has a “kill zone” of 100 feet, and injury-causing shrapnel will probably fly out to 500 feet, said Sgt. Bobby Brewster of the 1st Cavalry Division’s artillery unit.

On the first and second day of training last week, the 40 Iraqi soldiers were divided into groups to learn how to target and fire the weapons. Like any good lesson plan, the basics came first.

“If one or both tires are missing, you cannot operate this system,” a U.S. soldier, speaking through an interpreter, told the Iraqi soldiers gathered around him.

One important lesson for the Iraqi army, according to Garcia and Brewster, is that a well-trained soldier using a M198 howitzer will be far more effective than Hussein’s army was in its use of artillery.

Although Hussein amassed as many as 3,000 artillery pieces, many from Russia, U.S. military officials say soldiers in the old Iraqi army lacked the training and technical support needed to use the weapons effectively.

“We would see a round go off far away, then they would readjust, and it would go off even farther away. We would counter-fire once and then hear no more,” recalled Brewster, who took part in artillery battles during the 2003 invasion.

The goal, Brewster and Garcia said, is to train Iraq’s new army artillery units to deliver the same precision.


 
 
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BAGHDAD — Five U.S. soldiers were killed Monday in a rocket attack at a joint U.S.-Iraqi base in the capital, officials said. It was the largest death toll for the American military in Iraq in a single incident in two years. The U.S. military did not release details of the attack, but Iraqi officials and witnesses said it occurred at Camp Loyalty, which Iraqis call Baladiyat base. The base is located in the Baladiyat district of Baghdad, close to Sadr City. Iraqi security officials said about six rockets hit the base, apparently near the Americans’ residential quarters.
Monday’s palace bombing occurred as the Iraqi army, under orders from Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s national government, was attempting to take over responsibility for protecting the palace following Friday’s explosion, Iraqi security officials said.
A man detonated a car packed with explosives at the palace gate about 9:30 a.m. Most, if not all, of the dead were Iraqi police and soldiers. An Iraqi army colonel overseeing the handover operation was among the wounded.
The dead in Friday’s mosque bombing included several high-ranking Sunni officials from Tikrit, Hussein’s home town. About 10 hours after the bombing, a suicide bomber detonated his explosives near the emergency room of a teaching hospital where the wounded were being treated. As many as 17 people were killed in that incident, according to a doctor who survived the blast.
Local officials suspect that al-Qaeda in Iraq might be behind the attacks. The group has been targeting Sunni politicians and tribal leaders suspecting of cooperating with Iraq’s national government or supportive of a continued U.S. military presence in the country.
Tikrit, which forms the tip of an area north and west of Baghdad known as the Sunni Triangle, has been especially hard-hit in recent months by the violence that continues to plague Iraq. Shortly after Monday’s blast, the head of national security for Iraq’s Sala ad-Din province, which includes Tikrit, resigned.
Also on Monday, in Anbar Province in western Iraq, four people were killed after insurgents apparently placed explosives around the home of a lieutenant colonel in the local police force. The police commander was not home when the explosives detonated, but his mother, wife, daughter and brother were killed, according to Iraqi security officials.
In Baghdad, at least two people were killed when gunmen opened fire on two checkpoints manned by Sunnis associated with the anti-al-Qaeda in Iraq “Awakening” movement.
A car bomb also exploded Monday morning on Baghdad’s busy Palestine Street, killing one person and injuring 10 others, security officials said. In another incident, several police officers were injured when a gunman opened fire at a checkpoint in northern Baghdad.


 

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