BAGHDAD - Iraqi Army Soldiers from the 9th Mechanized Division recently began learning how to operate and maintain the M1A1 Abrams Main Battle Tank at Besmaya Combat Training Center, Iraq.

Iraqi Soldiers receive M1A1 training in two separate courses: the Operators of New Equipment Training Course and the Unit Maintenance of New Equipment Training Course.

Both courses are built upon U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command standards, said U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Jose Rodriguez-Barajas, an operations noncommissioned officer with the Iraqi Training and Advising Mission-Army.

"We hold them to the same standard as we hold our U.S. Soldiers," Rodriguez-Barajas said.

The 53-day M1A1 operators' course began in early February, and consists of 40 students. Iraqi Soldiers in this course previously trained for familiarization with the M1A1. However this new course offers more in-depth knowledge about the tank, such as how to conduct basic Preventative Maintenance Checks and Services, which includes everything from checking the oil to gauging track serviceability.

The new course also teaches the Soldiers how to operate as a crew; focusing on the teamwork required to successfully employ an M1A1 tank and integrating responsibilities of their individual crew positions to develop an understanding of how each role correlates with the other crew positions.

"The purpose of the OPNET course is to train battle roster crews that will actually be assigned to those tanks," said U.S. Army Lt. Col. David C. Beachman, the ITAM-Army senior advisor at Besmaya Combat Training Center. "Crews need to be trained on their weapons systems, their platforms of the M1A1 Abrams."

This course marks the first M1A1 course that features former Iraqi Army graduates as the primary instructors to other Iraqi Soldiers learning how to operate the M1A1, demonstrating a significant step forward in the Iraqi Army's development of self-sustaining capabilities.

"In the future, we will train other Iraqi Soldiers about this tank," said Iraqi Army Capt. Mouhaned, a student in the M1A1 OPNET course.

After successfully completing the OPNET course, some of the Soldiers will go on to more advanced M1A1 training designed to prepare them for a role as, M1A1 subject matter experts.

"The top students of the course will go to the Master Gunnery Course to gain more advanced skills, like performing functions checks on the gunnery system," said Rodriguez-Barajas, a native of Palm Dell, Calif.

While it is important to ensure Iraqi Soldiers are proficient M1A1 operators, it is equally important to ensure the Iraqi Soldiers are properly trained to maintain the tank.

The 14-week M1A1 Unit Maintenance of New Equipment Training course began in early March and consists of 19 Iraqi Soldiers from the Iraqi Ministry of Defense's Directorate General of Electrical Mechanical Engineering and the Iraqi Army 9th Mechanized Division.

"The UMNET course will teach them how to maintain the M1A1," Rodriguez-Barajas said. "Teach them how to be turret mechanics."

During this course, students are taught a wide variety of skills to maintain the M1A1 Abrams, ranging from diagnosing and troubleshooting malfunctions to performing on-board support on the turret system.

"The purpose of the Unit Maintenance Course is to build a stable of M1A1 Abrams Tank System Maintainers within the organizations of the Iraqi Army," said Beachman, a native of Somers, N.Y.

To develop these skills, the students are given in-depth classroom training paired with hands-on opportunities to provide them with a real understanding of the equipment they are using.

"We participate in theoretical classes, and then we actually see the things on the tanks we were taught and have practical exercises," said Iraqi Army Lt. Col. Jaber Ali Hussain with the Iraqi MoD Directorate General for EME.

"They need more than schooling, they need experience on the tanks to be successful," Rodriguez-Barajas said.

Maintaining the M1A1 is just as important as knowing how to operate it. If there is no one to fix equipment when it breaks, the tank will be ineffective as a weapons system.

"If the Iraqis are not successful, there will be M1A1s out there that will corrode and will be damaged because there are no mechanics to fix them," Rodriguez-Barajas said.

Both the operators and maintainers courses are positive signs the Iraqi Army is increasing its capabilities and poised to provide for the common defense of Iraq. "We're trying to build an Iraqi Army that is a viable and sustainable, conventional defensive capability," Beachman said.

Integrating training to prepare Iraqi Soldiers to operate and maintain the M1A1 tank is an on-going mission at the Besmaya Combat Training Center. This training supports the development of Iraq's defense capabilities and will enable to the Iraqi Army to defend the country against external threats.

Editor's note: DuBuke is a member of the Maryland Army National Guard's 29th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment attached to the U.S. Forces-Iraq Deputy Commanding General for Advising and Training Public Affairs Office.