FORT BENNING — A former lieutenant in Saddam Hussein’s army will become the first Iraqi to graduate Friday from the Army’s Ranger School, a 61-day leadership training ordeal that pushes soldiers to their physical and mental limits in forests, swamps and mountains.

“I have a big, huge faith in the future of Iraq and that’s why I’m here,” said Capt. Arkan, who was identified only by his first name to protect him and his family back home.

Arkan, 25, a lieutenant in Saddam’s army when U.S. bombs began raining down on Baghdad, where he was stationed, said he felt no animosity then or now toward the United States.

“It was a situation you expect from war,” he said. “They were fighting Saddam Hussein, not the people. They came for the people. You have to take these matters professionally.”

He’ll pin on the coveted Ranger tab when he graduates Friday with 185 of his classmates, including students from Moldova, Taiwan, the Czech Republic, Georgia and Greece.

Col. Clarence K.K. Chinn, commander of the Ranger Training Brigade, said the training of international students has been a tradition since the school’s founding in 1950.

“They go back and they’re going to be great officers and NCOs,” he said. “Once an officer gets training in the United States, there’s a loyalty toward this country. We want to build and strengthen our military alliances. What happens with the politicians is a separate matter.”

With the U.S. at war in Afghanistan and Iraq, 81 percent of the instructors are combat veterans and most of the students will be leading soldiers on the battlefield, Chinn said.

The training is designed to simulate the stress and depravation they’ll experience in combat.

“We like to say this is tougher than combat,” the colonel said. “When you leave here you’ll be a physically and mentally tough, competent, confident combat leader. In combat, every second counts. If you hesitate, somebody gets killed.

“The reason you come to Ranger School is not for you,” he said. “It’s for the soldiers you lead. That’s the sacred trust we have with mothers and fathers of the men and women we send into combat — to bring them home alive.”

Arkan said an important motivator for him was the knowledge that he was the first Iraqi to be selected for the school. Another Iraqi soldier is in a class that started Monday and others are expected to follow.

“I’m not going to let my country down,” Arkan said. “I’m not going to let my commanders down. That was my motivation.

“You’re not coming over here as a regular infantry captain,” he said. “You’re coming to represent your country. For me, I think I’ve done very well.”

He said the first week was the most stressful, when students have to adjust from normal sleep patterns and three meals a day to an hour or two of sleep a night, two Army ration meals a day and almost constant physical training. His weight dropped from 180 to 160 pounds the first week, Arkan said.

“There’s no walking in this school,” he said. “You’re running all the time.”

One of Arkan’s fellow students said his war experiences in Iraq were helpful.

“We were impressed with the amount of knowledge he had about combat, something a lot of us did not have,” said 1st Lt. Bryan Brokaw, 23, of the Arizona Army National Guard. “We all asked him questions.”

Some of Arkan’s Green Beret classmates practiced their language skills by greeting Arkan in Arabic, Brokaw said.

With the collapse of Saddam’s regime, Arkan’s military career ended abruptly, but he promptly signed up when Iraq’s first new Army battalion was formed in July 2003, he said.

He was selected to attend an officers’ course at Fort Benning’s Infantry School in 2004 and went on to graduate from the Army’s Airborne School, also at Fort Benning, in 2005. Then he returned to Iraq until he reported to the Ranger school earlier this year.

Arkan said he’s uncertain of his assignment upon his return. But whether it’s training soldiers or commanding a unit, the Ranger training has made him a better leader, he said.

With all the death and violence in Iraq, he has worried about his parents, three brothers and sister in Baghdad.

“Their safety is one of my big concerns,” said Arkan, who believes it’s just a matter of time before Iraq is a lot safer place to live.

“As for the terrorists groups, their days are numbered,” he said. “God willing, everything is going to be good.”

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