NEAR NASIRIYAH, IRAQThe U.S. military is getting ready to arm the more than 620 Free Iraqi Forces fighters who have been flown into southern Iraq to work alongside U.S. special operations troops, U.S. News has learned.
Despite doubts about the FIF's readiness for combat, U.S. officials are planning to begin equipping the Iraqi fighters on Wednesday with RPK machine guns, AK-47 assault rifles, and rocket-propelled grenade launchersapparently captured Iraqi military booty. The FIF have also been issued standard desert camouflage uniforms.
At first, the FIF, an arm of the controversial Iraqi National Congress opposition group, was being authorized to conduct only nonlethal operations to help U.S. troops identify regime figures trying to escape and to win over local populations. But INC leader Ahmed Chalabi and the Pentagon officials who backed the FIF deployment have been eager to send the FIF into combat. Chalabi, in particular, hopes that the force will form the nucleus of a new Iraqi Army. Other officials have planned to rebuild Iraq's regular Army into a force that could keep the peace after Saddam Hussein's regime is ousted. The State Department and key U.S. allies have been very skeptical of Chalabi and the INC's credibility inside Iraq.
Still, U.S. special forces are currently conducting some basic training classes for the FIF to prepare them for checkpoint duty and combat as soon as possible. Only about a third of the FIF have combat experience. Half of the force is composed of exiles and the rest are Iraqis who fought with the Kurds in the north against Saddam's regime. They were flown into southern Iraq from Kurdish-controlled bases starting last Saturday.
(Linda Robinson reported from Iraq and Kevin Whitelaw from Washington.)