WASHINGTON – Iraqi exiles who want to help the American military in its campaign against Saddam Hussein will report for training this week, defense officials said.
The first batch of opposition members who've volunteered to serve with U.S. forces have been told by the Pentagon to assemble at marshaling centers in the next several days, three officials said late Tuesday on condition of anonymity.
The call-up of recruits kicks off the largest known U.S. effort to train Saddam's enemies since passage of the 1998 Iraq Liberation Act, which called for his overthrow and said $97 million could be spent to train and equip his opponents.
President Bush on Tuesday said "time is running out" for Saddam to disarm.
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.
"He must disarm," Bush said. "I'm sick and tired of games and deceptions. And that's my view of timetables."
Meanwhile, the deployment of tens of thousands of U.S. troops to the region continued Tuesday as the Defense Department worked to build up forces for a war Bush says he may or may not wage.
As for the Iraqi opposition, Pentagon trainees will be screened at the marshaling 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.
Up to 3,000 Iraqis are expected to be trained eventually to serve in such jobs as translators, guides, military police, and liaisons between coalition combat forces and the Iraqi population. Officials have ruled out early suggestions by some in the administration that the men be used in combat positions.
The presence of nationals who know the language and territory and might have some rapport with the local population will benefit coalition forces during any military action, officials say. They also acknowledge that the job of overthrowing Saddam can be done without the help of the exiles but their inclusion gives the political benefit of illustrating that Saddam's own people also want to see him go.
Officials declined to say how many Iraqis will be in the first batch of recruits or where the marshaling centers are. 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.
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. During the Clinton administration, some 140 Iraqis received limited training at military schools in the United States in subjects including emergency medical techniques, logistics, warehouse management and public affairs. As of late last year, less than $5 million had been used, partly because of hesitancy to deal with the Iraqi National Congress, an opposition umbrella organization.
But the Bush White House and the Pentagon have shown far more interest in dealing with the group as the administration has developed its plans against Saddam.
Bush signed a directive in October under which the Pentagon can spend the $92 million remaining from the 1998 legislation. It was unclear how much would actually be needed and how much had already been used to prepare the training program.
The 600 to 700 Army personnel who will be the trainers began arriving early this month at a military air base in Taszar, 120 miles southeast of Budapest.
The administration picked the trainees from several thousand names submitted by the London-based INC as well as other Saddam opponents.
Reports also persisted abroad Tuesday that Saddam might be offered safe haven outside Iraq.
"It would be a good idea if he took the opportunity to leave," State Department Richard Boucher said. "At the same time, I don't think we're counting on it."
Administration officials have hinted before that he might be allowed to go into exile with his family and other regime leaders.
Boucher also said officials hadn't decided whether the United States would send a representative to a meeting of Iraqi opposition figures inside Iraq later this week.
Though the exact date has not been released for security reasons, opposition representatives plan to meet in Salahuddin, 30 miles northeast of Irbil on the road to Iran to make the point that the Iraqi people also want to see Saddam go.
The area is protected by the "northern no-fly zone," patrolled by U.S. and British warplanes for the last decade to protect the area's Kurdish minority from being attacked by Saddam's air forces.
INC leader Ahmed Chalabi said he expected representatives from Iran, Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia to attend.