By Charles Levinson, USA TODAY
BESMAYA COMBAT TRAINING CENTER, Iraq — The Iraqi general grabbed the hull of America’s No. 1 battle tank and gave it a shake.
“It’s very hot,” said Gen. Mohan al-Furayji, the Iraqi defense minister’s top military adviser. “I’m afraid my soldiers won’t be able to operate behind these tanks.”
His concerns threatened to derail an arms deal worth as much $2.16 billion. That alarmed Brig. Gen. Charles Luckey, who, on this sweltering day in the desert, was a salesman of sorts.
You could even say he is the U.S. military’s senior used-tank salesman. Luckey is the U.S. officer in charge of foreign military sales to Iraq. It’s his job to move the merchandise.
“For as little as $300 you can get a blast deflector to deal with the heat,” Luckey said.
“I might even throw them in for free for you,” he added, sweetening the deal.
Iraq is fast becoming one of the United States’ top customers for military sales. Since January 2007, Iraq has spent $3.1 billion on U.S. weapons. That number looks likely to grow exponentially as Iraq uses its vast unspent reserves of petrodollars to develop its army into a force capable of defending its borders against hostile neighbors.
In the past two months alone, the Pentagon has alerted Congress of a possible $8.7 billion worth of additional military sales to Iraq, for everything from lightweight attack helicopters to armored ambulances to binoculars.
Here in the Iraqi desert 35 miles east of Baghdad, the latest deal was going down.
Iraq’s Ministry of Defense is aiming to upgrade its tank fleet, which is composed largely of run-down Soviet tanks from the 1970s.
It is considering buying 140 of the United States’ most advanced tanks, at approximately $4 million to $5 million per tank, plus hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of support equipment to go along with the tanks.
Feting one of its biggest customers, the U.S. arranged for a tank platoon to put on a demonstration of the vehicles’ capabilities last Sunday for senior Iraqi generals.
With the generals watching from a tower, a pair of M-1 Abrams tanks shot forward from their “hide” position a kilometer away and tore toward the watchtower at 45 mph, kicking up plumes of dust in their wake.
They buzzed either side of the tower, then let their mighty guns roar with deafening booms, sending a half-dozen high-explosive 120mm rounds downrange toward an imaginary enemy.
When the tanks pulled to a stop, the generals came down for a closer inspection.
“The American tanks are very modern and capable, but we still don’t know if this tank is in the best interests of the Iraqi army,” said al-Furayji, like a shopper in a Baghdad bazaar feigning a lack of interest to get a better price.
The delegation of U.S. and Iraqi generals, now playing salesmen and customers, climbed atop the tank.
Al-Furayji and his aides peered down the hatch into the tank’s nerve center, where the crew of four operates.
Traveling 45 mph, carrying 17 rounds of 120mm ammunition that can hit a dime in the dead of night at 3,000 meters thanks to a laser range-finder and thermal-imaging night sights, the M1A1 Abrams tank is “the most battle proven tank in the world,” Lt. Col. Tim Renshaw said.
The Iraqi officers on hand included some of the Iraqi army’s most senior commanders of armored forces.
They’ve experienced this tank’s lethal capabilities firsthand. In the 1991 Gulf War, their older Russian tanks were blinded by the thick black smoke that billowed from Kuwait’s oil wells after Saddam Hussein ordered them set ablaze.
The American tank’s superior thermal imaging system allowed them to see perfectly and easily crush their enemy.
For Luckey, it makes an effective sales pitch.
“That’s why you guys got your (butts) kicked,” he told the Iraqi generals, before they flew back to Baghdad to consult with their bosses on the sale’s pros and cons.