AMMAN, Jordan—The first class of officers in the new Iraqi army graduated Thursday in a spirited ceremony that foreshadowed some of the obstacles the men will face as they report for duty in their increasingly volatile homeland.
Nearly 550 men smiled and saluted as they received diplomas at the Jordanian military academy, where they've spent the past two and a half months learning how to turn a dictator's army into a peacekeeping force. But speeches promising to protect a unified and independent Iraq rang hollow as reminders of the country's U.S.-led occupation, frequent terror attacks and growing ethnic tension surfaced throughout the event.
Speakers praised the ability of Iraqi officers to lead a sovereign military, then a U.S.-appointed politician handed them certificates on a dais with the American flag as a backdrop. A Kurdish translator was on hand as evidence of the diversity of the new army, but soldiers gossiped about cadets who were kicked out of the program after a brawl sparked by ethnic slurs.
"Leadership will not come by nature—it comes from traits developed," Jordanian Brig. Gen. Ahmed Farajat told the graduating class of commanders and platoon leaders. " ... Don't forget you all work as commanders for the welfare of one army, one country."
Most of the new graduates held positions in Saddam Hussein's former ranks, whose brutalities are documented in the mass graves and black mourning clothes found in nearly every corner of Iraq. Seconds after the ceremony ended Thursday, chants rocked the auditorium as officers resurrected words once devoted to the dictator.
"With our blood, with our souls, we will sacrifice for you," hundreds shouted in an old refrain they said was now directed at all Iraqis.
American, British, Australian and Spanish troops trained the recruits with the help of the Jordanian monarchy's military. Thousands of police officers and other Iraqi security forces also are in Amman for courses ranging from human rights to weapons skills.
British Col. Kim Smith said vetting the Iraqis for residual loyalty to the former regime is a continuous process.
"It's hard when you're living cheek by jowl in a barracks room full of 14 other guys for your true opinions not to be known," Smith said.
Several graduates expressed disdain for Saddam as well as the insurgents behind the terrorist attacks, which the men followed on television during breaks from training. The officers, too, are targets, as homegrown guerrillas and foreign fighters regularly stage deadly bombings against soldiers in the new army, labeling them traitors for working with the occupation authorities.
The label didn't seem to bother two brothers from Kut, a Shiite Muslim city south of Baghdad. Karam Jabar, a 40-year-old instructor at the academy, beamed as he walked arm in arm with Khaled Jabar, 28, who had just graduated.
Before the ouster of Saddam's Sunni-dominated regime, the Shiite brothers never dreamed of rising to the ranks of officers. Despite the dangers ahead, they said, the two men are in a hurry to get back to Iraq and try out their lessons on peacekeeping and nationbuilding.
"I feel so happy to return to serve my country, my people," Khaled Jabar said. "I want to protect my land."
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.