Power Weapons

Iraqi troops in Baghdad are setting aside their sturdy AK-47 rifle and going to battle with the same sure-firing, but higher-maintenance M-16 used by U.S. soldiers. The question is whether the Iraqis can keep their new guns clean and firing--or keep them at all. U.S. officials say the Iraqi Army requested the new guns (paid for mostly with Iraqi money). It's an unusual move. There are reasons the AK has become the favored weapon (and worldwide scourge) among Third World armies, guerilla groups and terrorists. It's simple and requires little care. People joke that you can bury it for a year, dig it up and shoot.

But the Iraqis wanted the symbolism that comes with the M-16. Last week I went with Lt. Gen. James M. Dubik, commander of the U.S. outfit that trains the Iraqi security forces (the Multi-National Security Transition Command-Iraq) to an Iraqi military base in Taji, on Baghdad's northern outskirts, where a couple hundred soldiers were training on the new rifle. He acknowledged that America does not usually promote the use of M-16s by the militaries around the world that get U.S. training. But the Iraqi leaders wanted them, and Dubik thinks it will encourage discipline as well as enhancing tactical strength. "Most [armies in other countries] are satisfied with the AK-47s," Dubik said. The Iraqis believe that having the M-16 "demonstrates--visually--improvement and advancement," he continued. "They say, 'This is the weapon of the U.S. Army, the best army on the face of the earth and we have it too.'" The M-16 is also lighter and more accurate, in part because it kicks less when fired.

About 40,000 M-16s and about 3,000 M-4s (a shorter version of the rifle) have been shipped into Iraq and more than 3,200 have been distributed. The soldiers I saw had been patrolling eastern Baghdad the week before with their AKs when they were sent to Taji for five days of training on the M-16. The first day includes fingerprinting and eye scans to attach each soldier to his new rifle. A recent report by the Congressional Government Accountability Office found that about 110,000 AKs that the United States shipped to Iraqi troops in 2004 and 2005 cannot be located, with military officials saying the guns were rushed to Iraqi troops in wartime conditions before the proper record-keeping systems were put in place.

It was incongruous seeing the Iraqi troops with the American weapons. The new guns, painted a flat black, were spotless. The troops themselves, battle-tested already, were a mix of very young men and some clearly in their mid-40s, ranging from skinny to overweight. One complained that the guns were too long for easy use in armored vehicles (the AKs usually have retractable shoulder stocks) and another complained that they weren't getting enough ammunition. The M-16s use smaller bullets than the AKs in Iraq. The hope is that even if insurgents obtain the new guns, they'll have trouble keeping them loaded.

But there are risks. The guns require cleaning after they are fired and U.S. troops usually get a lot more training on them than Iraqi troops will have. An M-16 commands several times the value of an AK on the black market, which could tempt soldiers into selling them off. That temptation could be higher if the guns jam up or firing pins break, as happens occasionally, sending the Iraqis back to their familiar AKs.

Iraqi Defense Minister Abdul-Qader al-Obeidi, also on the trip from Baghdad, told the soldiers that the guns will set them apart from their enemies. "Maybe if the terrorists can fire [accurately] 30 or 40 percent, you will shoot 70 percent," he said. And when they went to the range for their first attempts, an inspection of the targets showed that most did either hit close to the bulls-eye or kept the shots bunched together--a sign of competent shooting with a weapon needing an initial site calibration. They fire about 150 times each--not much for getting comfortable with a new gun--before being sent back to Baghdad. "The M-16 is something you've got to take care of, so the jury's out on that one," Dubik said. Thousands more rifles will be imported if the Iraqis show they can handle the firepower.

Photo: Iraqi Army troops prepare to train with new M-16 rifles in a program that replaces their AK-47s with the gun used by U.S. soldiers.
Photo Credit:
Larry Kaplow