RUSTAMIYAH, Iraq // This time it was not mortars or rockets hitting the hall south-east of Baghdad where the Iraqi military's newest officers were graduating - it was a hail of hard candy. It began with a few symbolic sweets tossed in celebration from bleachers packed with relatives and escalated into women reaching into handbags and throwing huge handfuls of wrapped candies that pelted the dignitaries and prompted reporters to duck to avoid being hit.
Through it all the young graduates lined up in the assembly hall with their rifles, standing motionless as the candy fell between their feet, trying but not always succeeding in keeping stern expressions on their faces. This was the class of 2008 at the Rustamiyah Military Academy - Iraq's Sandhurst. Two hundred and thirty two new army and air force lieutenants graduated yesterday from the yearlong course. They joined in the midst of Iraq's raging sectarian violence last year and are leaving into an Iraq that is much calmer but still divided and fraught with danger.
"Let me remind you of one thing," the Iraqi defence minister, Abdul Qadir Jassim, told the graduates: "The most important medal you can wear on your chest is the trust of the Iraqi people - all Iraqis. "Our loyalty is to Iraq and only Iraq," he said pointedly. The Iraqi military's best and brightest listened carefully as Gen David Petraeus, who earlier headed the coalition effort to rebuild Iraq's security forces, told them they were the future of Iraq's military. The academy, founded by the British in 1924, was destroyed and looted after the fall of Baghdad before being reopened by the US-led coalition in 2005.
"Although it is clear Iraq needs less and less assistance please know we stand ready to provide assistance," Gen Petraeus said. At a news conference afterwards neither Gen Petraeus nor Mr Jassim would comment on the details of a status of forces agreement being negotiated between Iraq and the United States. Although the United States has shaped the country's recent history, in the military, Iraq's British roots run deep. As the Iraqi army band struck up marching songs, the strains of It's a Long Road to Tipperary incongruously filled the hall.
The lack of an officer class, particularly among Iraq's Sunni population, has been one of the biggest problems in rebuilding the army, disbanded in 2003 by US occupation authorities. An estimated 70 per cent of the cadets graduating yesterday were Shiite. But at the ceremony they embraced each other as brothers. With the speeches over, relatives rushed down from the stands. Fathers tried to hold back tears as they pinned the star signifying the rank of a lieutenant onto their sons' epaulettes.
The new officers shouted with joy, embraced and kissed one another and waved their AK-47s in the air. Some gave their rifles to their younger brothers to try holding as their mothers smothered them with kisses. "I'm so happy," said Kholda Rahim from Baghdad. "My son is an officer. He's going to protect the Iraqi people and protect Iraq." @Email:email@example.com