WASHINGTON - The United States is gearing up to train several thousand Iraqi exiles at an airbase in Hungary to serve as translators, guides and intermediaries for U.S. forces if President Bush decides to go to war against Saddam Hussein, defense officials said.
Pentagon officials say the military training is designed to prepare the Iraqi exiles for critical support roles, not turn them into combat soldiers.
The exiles' knowledge of Iraq could prove invaluable as guides for U.S. troops entering Baghdad and other cities. And their language skills could help in everything from communicating with village elders and renegade Iraqi forces to interrogating prisoners.
The training at Taszar airbase, about 125 miles southwest of Budapest, is expected to begin early next month and include such basics as first aid and military organization. Pentagon officials have not decided whether weapons training will be part of the regimen.
Several dozen U.S. military trainers began arriving at the Hungarian airbase last week. The monthlong training program will be geared toward transforming the exiles, many of whom are in their 20s and have military experience, into translators, guides and liaison personnel for U.S. forces, and perhaps military police.
"They're getting the base set up and the boot camp ready," a defense official said.
Maj. Gen. David W. Barno, commander of the Army Training Center at Fort Jackson, S.C., has been assigned to oversee the training and has arrived in Hungary, a defense official said.
Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters last month that about $9 million has been set aside for the training.
At least 3,000 Iraqi exiles are expected to take part. Trainees are being selected from some 10,000 names suggested by the Iraqi National Congress, the largest of the opposition groups, along with smaller anti-Hussein organizations.
The training for Iraqi exiles, together with the steady deployment of U.S. forces to the Middle East, is one more indication that the Bush administration is setting the stage for a war with Iraq.
The Army announced yesterday that several thousand troops from the 82nd Airborne Division - paratroopers skilled at seizing airfields and other facilities - would deploy to the Persian Gulf region in the coming weeks.
And the projected completion of training for the Iraqi opposition forces by the end of February dovetails with reports that the United States will have enough forces in the region by then - possibly more than 150,000 troops - to mount an attack on Iraq.
The planned training has encouraged Iraqi opposition groups, which for years have received U.S. assistance for office space and travel but have been pressing for military training that would allow them to accompany U.S. forces into battle.
"The applicants are being called from all over the world," said an Iraqi opposition official, who requested anonymity. "I think they're going to give them a pretty serious military indoctrination."
Still, some Middle East analysts and Bush administration officials, particularly in the State Department, take a dim view of the Iraqi opposition groups, questioning whether they have any support inside Iraq and what role the organizations should play in an effort to oust Hussein.
Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni, who preceded Gen. Tommy Franks as commander of U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf and served last year as U.S. envoy to the Middle East, had harsh words for the opposition groups, particularly the Iraqi National Congress, which has offices in Washington and London. Before retiring two years ago, Zinni criticized efforts in Congress to "let some silk-suited, Rolex-wearing guys in London gin up an expedition."
Despite such negative assessments, Bush held his first extensive meeting with Iraqi opposition officials Friday in the Oval Office and pledged to work toward creating a democracy in Iraq.
And while the president said he had yet to decide whether to mount an attack, he said that any U.S. military presence in Iraq would not be long term.
Among those attending the White House meeting was Hatem Mukhlis, a physician and vice chairman of the Iraqi National Movement.
"We were very satisfied with the meeting," said Thair Nakib, an official of the opposition group who lives in Baltimore County. "It made us all very comfortable."
Iraqi opposition officials are expected to hold further talks today with Zalmay Khalilzad, the president's special envoy to the opposition forces.