BAGHDAD - The Iraqi Army continued on its path toward a more professional and capable Army when IA armor students fired their first main gun shots while training on the U.S. Army's main battle tank, the M1A1 Abrams at the Besmaya Combat Training Center located east of Baghdad, March 21.

The Iraqi Army purchased the 140 Abrams tanks through the Foreign Military Sales Program from the United States and they are scheduled to be delivered by August 2010.

The purchase of this sophisticated tank will greatly improve the Iraqi Army's capability to defend the country and defeat its enemies. The M1A1 tank is a vast improvement over the old Soviet-era tanks still in use by the IA.

In preparation for operating and maintaining these tanks, the Iraqi Army students have been in training with their Coalition forces counterparts and the Military Professional Resource Incorporated civilian instructors at Besmaya range since Jan. 24.

Each student is trained in a variety of skills on the Abrams including how to drive, load, fire and perform basic maintenance. To be proficient in all areas of the Abrams the students will rotate between the four different positions on the M1A1 to learn the different skills needed to run the tank. Previously Iraqi soldiers were only trained on their primary position and knew little to nothing about the other soldiers' skills.

"We teach them the basics of tank maintenance, how to shoot, move, and communicate" said William Dunbar, the MPRI tank team manager. "Once they finish the training, these students will be the subject matter experts for the IA."

Another big difference in the training of the tank crews is the inclusion of a fourth man in the tank. Previously the Iraqis used the Soviet-designed T-72 which incorporated an auto loader that would load a new round after every fire. The M1A1 does not use an auto loader, instead relying on a crewman to load the rounds.

"The Iraqis show lots of potential, and with this training they could be really good," said Staff Sgt. Joseph Romano, from St. Petersburg, Fla., a noncommissioned officer and instructor in the Multi-National Support Team - Center. "What they need now is repetition to build muscle memory."

The Iraqi students' training will be broken up into two phases. Currently they are in the first phase of their training in which they learn from the Coalition Soldiers and contracted instructors. In the second phase of the training the students will take the role of the instructor and will train a new group of Iraqi Army soldiers in the use of the Abrams tank. This is a train the trainer concept important to the IA especially with Coalition forces leaving Iraq in the near future.

"This is about more than selling and buying tanks," said Brig. Gen. Steven Salazar, commander of the Joint Headquarters Army Advisory Training Team, while speaking to the Coalition Soldiers instructing the students at Besmaya. "This is about building the relationship between the Coalition forces and the Iraqi Army."