WASHINGTON – The first batch of Iraqi exiles who have volunteered to help U.S. forces in a campaign against Saddam Hussein are reporting for training, the Pentagon said Wednesday.
Saddam's enemies in the United States and other parts of North America have been told to gather at a secret U.S. location over the next several days.
"The training is going to be ... real basic training so they could potentially fit in with some U.S. units and provide assistance with language skills, perhaps, or local knowledge and so forth," Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at a Pentagon press briefing.
The call-up of recruits kicks off the largest known U.S. effort to train opposition members since passage of the 1998 Iraq Liberation Act, which called for Saddam's overthrow and authorized $97 million to train and equip his opponents.
Officials declined to say how many Iraqi exiles are in the first group of trainees or exactly where they are gathering before being sent off to monthlong training at a base in Hungary. As groups living in Europe, the Middle East and elsewhere are called, they will report to other secret gathering centers overseas.
There are estimated to be well over 3 million Iraqis in exile, the largest groups in Jordan and Iran, with a few hundred thousand in the United States.
Up to 3,000 Iraqis could eventually be used as translators, guides, military police and liaisons between coalition combat forces and the Iraqi population, three officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Two officials said the Pentagon had ruled out early suggestions by some in the administration that the exiles be used in combat positions. But Myers said the precise number of men and exactly which jobs they'll perform are still to be determined.
"We're going to have to see how many finally show up, how much time we have," Myers said, adding that more complex training would take longer. Much also would depend on how much prior military experience the recruits have, he said.
Earlier Wednesday, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld briefed members of the Senate Armed Services Committee on the situations in Iraq, North Korea and Afghanistan.
Gen. Tommy Franks, who would command any war in Iraq, huddled at his Central Command headquarters in Tampa with his key generals. He called them there for a two-day conference starting Wednesday to go over plans for Iraq as well as the ongoing campaign in Afghanistan, which also is under his command.
And the deployment of tens of thousands of U.S. troops to the Persian Gulf region continued as the Defense Department worked to build up forces for a possible war.
Despite searching more than 300 sites since November, U.N. weapons inspectors say they haven't produced substantial evidence to support allegations Saddam has hidden caches of weapons of mass destruction and a missile program. And chief inspector Hans Blix said the inspectors need months to finish their searches.
But President Bush said Tuesday that Saddam "must disarm. I'm sick and tired of games and deceptions."
As for the Iraqi opposition, Pentagon trainees will be screened at gathering centers, then flown to a U.S. boot camp in Hungary and trained to serve as support staff for coalition forces in the event of a war or in the aftermath. The actual training is expected to begin early next month.
Though Iraqi opposition groups have long argued for more military training, little of the $97 million approved in 1998 has been spent over the years.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.