ABOARD THE USS CONSTELLATION – The Pentagon wants to recruit Iraqi exiles and train them to be part of a future Iraqi national army, the U.S. military's top general said Sunday.
Air Force Gen. Richard B. Meyers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, confirmed that planning is under way for training Iraqi volunteer soldiers in Europe.
Following this week's Iraqi opposition conference in London on forming a post-Saddam Hussein government, reports emerged that several thousand Iraqis exiles would be recruited to guide coalition troops for a possible war against Baghdad. The exiles would form the core of the Arab country's new armed forces if Saddam Hussein is ousted.
Hungary this week gave the United States permission to use a former Soviet air base to train the Iraqis for possible deployment in their homeland.
Hungarian government spokesman Zoltan J. Gal said the first trainees could arrive as early as January at the Taszar air base, southeast of Budapest. The United States has permission to train up to 3,000 personnel of Iraqi or other Arab origin now living in Europe or the United States and attached to the U.S. military, Gal said.
Meyers visited the aircraft carrier Sunday as part of a tour of U.S. forces in Afghanistan and the Gulf. The Constellation, which replaced the USS Abraham Lincoln in the northern Arabian Sea, this week started mounting combat air patrols in the southern no-fly zone over Iraq.
The general cautioned that recruiting and vetting Iraqi volunteers for the new force "is not a particularly easy process (and) it will take some time."
He also denied reports of rifts among top U.S. military commanders regarding operational plans for a high-speed thrust by ground forces deep into Iraq.
Meyers said the steady buildup of U.S. forces in the region -- currently numbering about 50,000 troops -- would continue "in order to help diplomacy" and encourage Baghdad "to do the right thing" regarding weapons of mass destruction.
U.N. weapons inspectors are in Iraq searching for weapons of mass destruction. Baghdad denies having biological, chemical or nuclear weapons or programs to develop them.
Meyers, who was accompanied by comedian Drew Carey and New York Yankees baseball pitcher Roger Clemens, was greeted by thunderous chants of "USA, USA" from hundreds of sailors and airmen assembled in the carrier's vast hangar.
The Constellation left San Diego on Nov. 2 on a six-month deployment to the Gulf area.