April 1, 2009:
Last year, Iraq asked to buy 140 M1A1M Abrams tanks, along with over a hundred support vehicles (for maintenance and transportation, like 35 tank transporters). The request includes training and technical support. The U.S. agreed, and the total contract cost is over $2 billion. The tanks will begin arriving this year, and the last will arrive next year. Meanwhile, 28 Iraqi training NCOs are at the U.S. Army Armor School in Ft Knox, being themselves trained on all aspects of M-1 operation and maintenance. These troops will establish an M-1 training operation in Iraq, to instruct the 600 or so Iraqis required to operate the M-1s.
Over the last six years, Iraqis have been very impressed by the U.S. military. Although the U.S. initially advised the Iraqis to expand upon their use of Russian equipment (which they had been using for over three decades, and is cheaper than Western stuff), the Iraqis insisted on adopting U.S. gear and tactics. Thus Iraqi troops wear similar uniforms, and use many identical weapons and items of equipment. Iraqi soldiers, especially the younger ones, imitate American moves to the point that, in the field, U.S. troops sometimes have to look closely to determine if the G.I. down the street is American or Iraqi.
Iraq is not the first Arab country to operate the M1 tank. Egypt, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia already operate over 1,600 of them, and Egypt has built hundreds of them (mainly using components imported from the U.S., but with some locally made parts). Neither Iraq nor the U.S. Army has revealed the details of the "M" version of the M1A1 that Iraq will receive. All the other Arab users have at least some of the latest model (M1A2 SEP).
The Arab users of the M1 have been very happy with their American tanks. This satisfaction increased when they saw how the M-1 performed in Iraq. While most Arabs deplored U.S. operations there, Arab tank officers and M-1 crewmen were quietly pleased that their tanks appeared invulnerable, and able to assist the infantry in any kind of fight. Iraqi army officers have spoken to fellow Arab officers who have used the M-1, and were told this was the way to go.
Selling the M-1 to Iraq creates the possibility (although remote) of M-1s fighting M-1s. Saudi Arabia is seen as the champion of mainstream Sunni Arabs, and has long supported the Sunni Arab minority in Iraq. For a while, after 2003, with the increasingly savage fighting between Sunni and Shia Arabs in Iraq, there was talk of Saudi Arabia intervening, or threatening to, in order to halt attacks against Iraqi Sunni Arabs. This idea quickly went away in the face of an American army in Iraq, and growing al Qaeda terrorism in Saudi Arabia. But once U.S. troops leave, and if the ancient animosity between Sunni and Shia Arabs in Iraq gets ugly again, there could at least be incidents on the border, and the possibility of a few clashes between Saudi and Iraqi M-1 tanks.
More realistically, the Iraqis want their M-1s to keep the Turks out. A less likely, but still possible, aggressor is Iran. Although Iraq and Iran are both run by their Shia majorities, Iran is ruled by a religious dictatorship, and some of those Iranian clerics consider part of southern Iraq (where Shia holy places are) as part of Iran. Iraq figures that 140 M-1 tanks could make short work of the ramshackle collection of older tanks Iran has (and is unable to upgrade much because of all the arms embargoes). For the foreseeable future, however, most of the Iraqi tank force will consist of upgraded Russian T-72s.