Weapons: Spray And Pray Fades Away



December 6, 2008: American troops are slowly helping Iraqi forces convert from Russian designed AK-47s to American M-16 and M-4 assault rifles. The process involves taking one Iraqi brigade at a time and putting the troops through a 21 day course on how to use the M-16. The training involves a lot of time spent on marksmanship, as well as the need for keeping the M-16/M-4 clean. Neither marksmanship or weapon maintenance have ever been major priorities in the Iraqi army.

Over the next five years, Iraqi security forces will be replacing all of their AK-47s with U.S. M-16 and M-4 assault rifles. In the last two years, the Iraqis have received 235,000 M-16 and M-4 rifles, but most have not been distributed yet. So far, only the more elite commando and SWAT units have received the American rifles, in addition to a few infantry brigades. Marksmanship and cleaning issues aside, Iraqis like the M-4 because it is two pounds lighter than the AK-47. This is a big deal for Iraqis, who tend to be smaller than U.S. troops, and also get worn down by the heat. The M-16 and M-4 also have less recoil than the AK-47. This, and the better inherent accuracy of the M-16, make many Iraqi troops believers in single aimed shots. With the AK-47, the favorite firing mode was "spray and pray" (poorly aimed full automatic fire, which can empty an AK-47 magazine in a few seconds).

Many Iraqi troops are not keen on getting the M-16. They know it is more accurate, and that they are getting more target practice to improve their shooting skills. But the M-16 requires more maintenance. You have to clean it a lot. The less accurate AK-47 was much more tolerant when it came to sand and dust. However, Iraqi NCOs and junior officers tend to prefer the M-16 for its lighter weight, and lighter ammo. The M-16 ammo weighs more than a third less than AK-47 rounds. That extra accuracy and ammo can be a lifesaver in combat. Iraqi NCOs also note that the U.S. troops manage to keep their weapons clean, and believe that Iraqis can be trained to be as diligent.

Iraqis may differ on whether U.S. troops should be in the country, but all agree that the Americans are formidable warriors. Increasingly, Iraqi troops are wearing similar combat uniforms and driving hummers. The Iraqi soldiers consciously copy their U.S. counterparts. This includes handling their weapons, and moving, in a similar fashion. But it isn't all superficial imitation. The Iraqis stand and fight now. U.S. troops, back in Iraq after having been away for a year or so, are pleasantly surprised to find, when called to reinforce an Iraqi unit (like a checkpoint, or a police station) under fire, that the Iraqis are now fighting harder and smarter. In the past, the U.S. troops would often show up to find the Iraqi troops or police had fled.

With so many Iraqi units equipped with M-16s, and wearing similar uniforms, it's often hard to tell Iraqis and Americans apart. This has led to situations where, in the thick of combat, a U.S. NCO goes up to a soldier and yells an order in English, which results in an Iraqi soldier. Who only speaks Arabic, turning around and giving the U.S. sergeant a puzzled look.

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