Georgian Army Switches to U.S. Rifles

ReutersSaakashvili handing a U.S.-designed M4 rifle to a Georgian soldier during a base-opening ceremony Friday in Gori.
TBILISI, Georgia -- Soldiers from NATO aspirant Georgia switched their Soviet-era Kalashnikov rifles on Friday for U.S.-designed M4 models in part of a drive to distance themselves from their Russian-dominated past.

Since surging to power in a peaceful 2003 revolution, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has aggressively pursued NATO membership, which requires the former Soviet state to modernize its military.

"Goodbye old weapon! Long live the new one!" Saakashvili said at an opening ceremony of a new military base in Gori, which is 80 kilometers from the capital Tbilisi, close to the breakaway province of South Ossetia -- and is Stalin's birthplace.

Saakashvili handed over the M4 rifle to several soldiers.

He has argued with Russia over the status of Georgia's two rebel regions -- South Ossetia and Abkhazia -- which Moscow supports but Tbilisi has threatened to take back.

Georgia also built a new, NATO-standard military base in 2006 on the Black Sea coast near the border with Abkhazia.

Saakashvili has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on boosting the army and prides himself on creating a modern force. Georgia has about 2,500 soldiers in Iraq. Advertisements and pop songs glorify Georgian soldiers.

The country lies at the center of a power struggle between the United States and Russia in the Caucasus, a strategic region wedged between Europe and the Middle East.

Georgian officials say they have purchased enough M4 weapons to equip the entire army and that all troops will be issued them in the next few weeks.

The weapon is an assault rifle widely used by U.S. troops that can be switched between fully and semiautomatic fire.