For the first time in its 84-year history, the Iraqi Army has been reduced to a nearly impotent force deprived of heavy armaments, armour, and aircraft.

"Right now, tanks and heavy armament are not necessary," said Frederick C. Smith, the US senior adviser for Iraqi national security.

"What's needed are well-trained, disciplined troops with the proper equipment."

Returning the Iraqi Army to its 400,000-strong capacity with offensive capabilities is a nightmare scenario the Bush administration does not want to see.

"The general idea is that Iraq will not have an offensive capability that its neighbours find threatening," said Jeremy Binnie, an Iraq analyst with the London defense consultancy Jane's.

"They'll be much lighter, mobile forces that can resist security threats when they arise, not like the previous forces organized to launch heavy armoured assaults."

Not yet ready

Compared with the 400,000-man army, equipped with fleets of Soviet tanks and other heavy weapons, the Iraqi interim government that takes power on Wednesday will wield a token force.

The army is expected to field some 35,000 soldiers early next year, equipped with light infantry weapons and non-armoured vehicles, Smith said at a news briefing on Thursday.
 
Iraq's National Guard, a growing internal security force formerly known as the Iraq Civil Defense Corps, counts some 30,000 members.

Members of Iraqi security force
have no armour or air force

The nascent air force owns just two light reconnaissance planes.

The military's chief task is to fight resident guerrillas, not high-intensity warfare with a neighbouring state.

It is expected to take a year or more before Iraq's army can hold its own against well-armed Iraqi rebels, let alone handle an invasion from a neighbouring state.

For the near future, the 150,000 US-led occupation armies  who will remain here after the so-called transfer of authority on Wednesday will guarantee Iraq is not invaded, Smith said after the briefing.

More troops, materiel

But US plans to overhaul the new Iraqi Army have frustrated several members of the interim government.

Iraq needs a strong military to survive in one of the world's toughest regions _ and to wean itself from an unpopular dependence on the US, said Ibrahim al-Jaafari, one of Iraq's two incoming vice presidents.

"We don't want to turn Iraq into an arsenal. We don't want the military to return to a strategy of aggression," al-Jaafari told The Associated Press.

"But we want Iraq to be strong enough to return assaults from others. There must be an army with reasonable weapons that can make the country safe, so no one can assault it."

$5 billion miltary spending

Interim Iraqi President Ghazi al-Yawir has already called for doubling the size of the army, from the planned three infantry divisions to six.

And Prime Minister Iyad Allawi called on outside countries to donate military hardware to bolster Iraq's beleaguered forces.

Iraqi interim leaders are asking
the US for increasing Iraqi troops


 
"Until our forces are fully capable, we will continue to need support from our friends," Allawi said last Sunday.

Support from friends, however, may be slow in coming.

The $5 billion in US aid for Iraqi security forces is equipping
soldiers with light vehicles, AK-47s and body armor. If Iraq wants to arm those troops with tanks or artillery, Smith said, the country is on its own. 

"That will be a future decision of the Iraqi leadership," Smith said. "It will be dependent on their resources."

Former army

The Iraqi Army was established in June of 1921 when Iraq was still a British protectorate. It would eventually grow to its apex during the Iraq-Iran war, when it reached a total figure of 1.75 million men-at-arms, making it the fourth largest army in the world.

At the conclusion of the war in 1989, Iraq had 6000 Soviet-built tanks and 4000 artillery pieces.

After the 1991 Gulf War, Iraq's military capabilities were greatly reduced due to comprehensive economic sanctions and military embargo. Without a channel to import needed parts to upgrade a military machine that was quickly becoming archaic, Iraq's military was downgraded and its air force grounded.