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From shovels to shoulder bars: Iraqi cadets work toward officer corps

AR RUSTAMIYAH, Iraq - Senior term cadets practice their marksmanship and leadership skills during a course at the IMAR firing range. One student coached, while the other fired. (U.S. Air Force photo / Senior Airman Christie Putz)

AR RUSTAMIYAH, Iraq - Senior term cadets practice their marksmanship and leadership skills during a course at the IMAR firing range. One student coached, while the other fired. (U.S. Air Force photo / Senior Airman Christie Putz)

AR RUSTAMIYAH, Iraq - Junior term cadets receive instruction on bounding movements across open areas before practicing the skill during their first field exercise Sept. 4. (U.S. Air Force photo / Senior Airman Christie Putz)

AR RUSTAMIYAH, Iraq - Junior term cadets receive instruction on bounding movements across open areas before practicing the skill during their first field exercise Sept. 4. (U.S. Air Force photo / Senior Airman Christie Putz)

AR RUSTAMIYAH, Iraq - Using smoke grenades for concealment, Iraqi cadets secure
the perimeter of the training area during their exercise. (U.S. Air Force photo / Senior Airman Christie Putz)

AR RUSTAMIYAH, Iraq - Using smoke grenades for concealment, Iraqi cadets secure the perimeter of the training area during their exercise. (U.S. Air Force photo / Senior Airman Christie Putz)

AR RUSTAMIYAH, Iraq - A junior-term cadet at Iraqi Military Academy Rustamiyah uses a pick-axe to dig a fighting position hole during his class’s first field exercise Sept. 4. Junior term teaches cadets basic infantry tactics and begins leadership training. (U.S. Air Force photo / Senior Airman Christie Putz)

AR RUSTAMIYAH, Iraq - A junior-term cadet at Iraqi Military Academy Rustamiyah uses a pick-axe to dig a fighting position hole during his class’s first field exercise Sept. 4. Junior term teaches cadets basic infantry tactics and begins leadership training. (U.S. Air Force photo / Senior Airman Christie Putz)

AR RUSTAMIYAH, Iraq - Dried mud, covering the face and helmet of an IMAR cadet, serves as an improvised form of camouflage. During the junior term’s first field exercise, students learn the basics of living and surviving in a field environment. (U.S. Air Force photo / Senior Airman Christie Putz)

AR RUSTAMIYAH, Iraq - Dried mud, covering the face and helmet of an IMAR cadet, serves as an improvised form of camouflage. During the junior term’s first field exercise, students learn the basics of living and surviving in a field environment. (U.S. Air Force photo / Senior Airman Christie Putz)

AR RUSTAMIYAH, Iraq -- Wielding pick-axes and small folding shovels, Iraqi Army cadets chip away at the sun-baked earth while wiping sweat from their brow. The mid-afternoon sun blazes down on them as they stand, wearing full body armor and Kevlar helmets, in their shallow holes of accomplishment.

"It is hard work," said one of the Iraqi Military Academy Rustamiyah junior term platoon commanders during their first field training exercise Sept. 4. "We've been digging since 10 o'clock."

The class prior didn't finish the task until 3 a.m. the following morning.

For these future Iraqi Army officers, who were civilians merely six weeks prior, digging fighting positions is just one small lesson in their year-long studies at the academy.

"IMAR teaches students the qualities needed to be a successful leader in the Iraqi military," said British Army Lt. Col. Keiran Potts, IMAR senior British advisor.

During this specific exercise, which was the cadets' first true taste of life in the field, they built shelters, secured perimeters, and practiced bounding movements across open areas and fighting from defensive positions.

Half of the platoon altered their sleep cycles, resting in their newly dug holes under a simple, propped sheet of fabric during the hottest hours of the day, to allow shift work and some labor to be accomplished in the night's cooler temperatures.

"This is what the Iraqi soldiers are doing," said Ahmed, a cadet who requested that his name be changed for security purposes. "We need to learn this so when we are officers we can lead our soldiers."

The course, which was molded after the British military academy system, is broken down into three terms: junior, intermediate and senior. Each term focuses on specific skills and compounds upon the previous.

"The first term concentrates on the transition from civilian to soldier," said Potts. "The first six weeks is equivalent to boot camp." Junior cadets are exposed to low-level infantry tactics and basic command and leadership principles.

Intermediate term focuses on further strengthening their leadership skills. Their field training progresses, with more emphasis placed on platoon-level tactics, versus individual. "At this time academics are also introduced, such as courses in war studies and international affairs," Potts added.

"During their senior term, as the cadets prepare for their entry to the field as an officer, leadership principles are of primary importance," he said.

Nearly every task is tailored to give students a chance to demonstrate their skills as a leader and mentor. On the firing range, for example, senior cadets approached the line in pairs - one as a shooter, the other as a coach. The shooter assumed the firing position, and the coach made any necessary corrections to his posture, form or sighting.

Their final months are heavily focused on field training, and students are put into command positions, directing the events of the exercises. All of this culminates with a final exam, which covers materials from all three terms.

"By the time the students graduate their senior term, they should be ready to be leaders in all senses," said Potts.

By tradition, each class's top graduate is typically selected to be a part of the junior term's instructor team. The other graduates are then sent to units across the country to put their knowledge to use actively fighting for their nation's peace.

With the graduation of one class, opportunity arises for the next generation of potential officers to commence training at the prestigious academy. According to Potts, the school receives roughly 3,000 applicants per course.

"Being an officer in the Iraqi Army is a respected position," he said. And attending an academy with a rich tradition such as IMAR also lends to its appeal.

Established in 1924, IMAR has been graduating Iraqi Army officers for more than 90 years. In 1947 the school moved to the site where it resides today. Several well-known officers received their training at IMAR, and even Saddam Hussein himself applied for the course but failed the entrance exam.

In 2003, the school was closed because of the second Gulf War. The facilities were looted and vandalized extensively until U.S. forces occupied the site later that year. Reconstruction began in 2004 and the following year the academy reopened to students.

Since 2006, it has been led by Coalition forces under the NATO Training Mission - Iraq. In June of this year, the school's Iraqi leadership took official control of the academy, with their Coalition counterparts simply serving as advisors.

"The academy leadership has made some definite improvements," said Potts. "There are a few areas where they could still improve further, but they've come a long way."

One of the biggest challenges of the academy is producing enough capable leaders to feed the growth of the Iraqi Army. "The size of the army is expanding exponentially," said Potts. "They need these officers."

And the majority of the cadets couldn't be more eager to fulfill that need.

"I am here because I want to serve my country," said a junior cadet. "My country needs me, so that is why I am here."