BAGHDAD, Dec. 21 (UPI) -- The new Iraqi army has started building up its armored forces with the first batch of 140 U.S.-built M1A1 Abrams main battle tank, the same type that crushed Saddam Hussein's military in March 2003.
The 9th Armored Division, based near Baghdad, will be the spearhead of an army that will likely have a strength of more than 300,000 troops in up to 20 divisions, six of them armored.
That's a far cry from the 1 million-man army, with 5,500 mainly Soviet- built T-72 and T-62 MBTs, that Saddam once fielded when Iraq was a major Middle East power. But the new army isn't designed to conduct the ill-fated military adventures undertaken by the power-hungry Saddam, such as the 1980 invasion of Iran and the 1990 conquest of Kuwait.
Its mission is first to crush insurgent forces and restore order and stability in the oil-rich country then to protect its borders against outside aggression.
The army received the first 11 Abrams in August. That was part of a $6 billion arms package approved by the United States in December 2008 to provide 140 M1A1s and 400 Stryker combat vehicles. Both are built by General Dynamics Land Systems.
"This step is part of preparations by Iraqi forces to take over security responsibilities and build a strong army as the U.S. withdraws," said Maj. Gen. Mohammed al-Askari, the Defense Ministry spokesman.
"This delivery will help to form the military's first armored division since 2003."
The Iraqis are training crews at the Besmaya military base near Baghdad on 22 M1A1s leased from the U.S. Army, which is equipped with the more advanced M1A2.
Delivery of the rest of the 140 M1A1s is to be completed by the end of 2011, when the U.S. military is slated to wrap up its withdrawal from Iraq.
Along with the MBTs, the United States is supplying 100 support vehicles, including 35 tank transporters.
Iraq's Abrams are newly built and are equipped with infrared thermal imagers, a special air filer for the engine to deal with the sand and dust of Iraq, systems that are components of the U.S. Army's Situational Awareness standard.
But they don't have the depleted uranium armor or the Blue Force Tracker, a satellite tracking system that displays the location of all U.S. vehicles and aircraft in the Abrams' operational vicinity.
Although Iraq's military and security forces are being trained by the Americans, U.S. officials disclosed in January 2009 that the Iraqis, on American advice, planned to purchase up to 2,000 retrofitted T-72s, redesignated the T-91 and built to be interoperable with U.S. forces.
These were to be upgraded, at an estimated cost of $3 million per tank, to near-M1A1 standard with modern guns and armor as well as new fire-control systems.
That made sense since Iraqi forces were familiar with the systems as Iraqi military doctrine was built around Soviet-era weapons supplied to Saddam's regime by Moscow.
Most of the equipment used by Saddam's army was either destroyed by U.S. and British forces in the 2003 fighting or was looted in the chaos that ensued Saddam's defeat.
In 2005, Hungary, a former Soviet satellite state, agreed to donate 77 T-72s to the Iraqis. Others were expected to come from Eastern European countries such as Poland, the Czech Republic, Ukraine and Slovakia.
However, that idea seems to have fallen from favor with the Pentagon and whether it will be pursued to one extent or another remains to be seen.
The Abrams is more than a match for the largely antiquated armor fielded by Iran, Iraq's eastern neighbor and traditional enemy that has long had its eyes on conquest.
But supplying Iraq with M1A1s opens the possibility of its Abrams having to go up against other U.S.-built tanks in the armies of Saudi Arabia, which has more advanced M1A2s, and Turkey, which has older M-60A1s.
Right now, the possibility of that happening seems remote. But if, for instance, the bloodletting between Iraq's Shiite majority and Sunni minority flares once U.S. forces have quit Iraq, Sunni-dominated states like Turkey and Saudi Arabia could intervene to support their endangered co-religionists.