updated 5/4/2006 7:46:24 PM ET 2006-05-04T23:46:24

A former lieutenant in Saddam Hussein’s army on Friday will become the first Iraqi to graduate from the Army’s Ranger School, a 61-day 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, a lieutenant in the Iraqi army in Baghdad at the time of the U.S.-led invasion, said he felt no animosity toward the United States when bombs began falling on the city in March 2003.

“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 will graduate Friday with 185 classmates, including students from Moldova, Taiwan, the Czech Republic, Georgia and Greece.

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

“Once an officer gets training in the United States, there’s a loyalty toward this country,” he said. “We want to build and strengthen our military alliances. What happens with the politicians is a separate matter.”

Pushed to the limit
The Ranger training is designed to simulate the stress and deprivation of combat. In the first week, students must adjust from normal sleep patterns and three meals a day to an hour or two of sleep a night and two Army ration meals a day, plus almost constant physical training.

Arkan’s weight dropped from 180 to 160 pounds the first week. “There’s no walking in this school. You’re running all the time,” he said.

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

“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.”

Experienced with war
One of Arkan’s classmates 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.

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

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