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Mock village helps troops learn skills for iraq duty { February 22 2004 }

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February 22, 2004
Mock Village Helps Troops Learn Skills for Iraq Duty

FORT POLK, La. With fear in their eyes and weapons at the ready, the men from the 39th Infantry Brigade edged into Al Samawa market to face a group of angry villagers chanting in Arabic. Goats darted through the crowd, thick smoke from a cooking fire obscured the way and suspicious-looking men lurked behind the stalls that lined the road. An opportunistic shopkeeper had raised food prices, an Iraqi policeman explained through a translator, and the villagers wanted the Americans to intervene.

Suddenly, the protesters surged forward, separating the troops from one another, and in the ensuing chaos, a soldier was stabbed. As the men swarmed to the side of their stricken comrade, a car bomb went off. The market descended into a hellish scene of grievously wounded civilians, shrieking women and panicked soldiers, who a month earlier had been working as schoolteachers, farmers and bankers.

But these men from the Arkansas National Guard were nowhere near Iraq. The setting, a Potemkin village of corrugated sheds and costumed performers, was a waterlogged pine forest in central Louisiana. The drill, staged by a crew of military strategists with wireless headsets and hidden video cameras, was among a series of simulated events that the guardsmen would face that day.

In early March, they and about 4,500 other civilian-soldiers who are training here will head to Baghdad. They will be among 105,000 troops replacing the 130,000 soldiers who have been in Iraq for nearly a year.

The forces who will begin shipping out in the coming weeks are being trained to become culturally sensitive peacekeepers, although they will be heavily armed. During their monthlong training here, they are learning how to direct crowds through a checkpoint (try not to show the palms of your hands), how to address a group of women (always speak to the eldest) and the best way to search homes for possible weapons caches (knock first, and give women a chance to dress before entering). Sunglasses are frowned upon; smiles are encouraged.

"In the past, we've always kicked the door open, sprayed the room and then figured out who was the enemy afterward," said Lt. Col. Kirk Van Pelt, the Arkansas brigade's commander. "We can't do that anymore because we'll end up creating more enemies."

Using a cast of 1,200 role players and sets worthy of Cecil B. DeMille, the Pentagon has tried to recreate some of the scenes that may confront soldiers inIraq. Scattered through the 200,000-acre military base here are burned-out cars, hidden roadside explosives and a fake Iraqi village.

The cast includes 200 Arab speakers who play the parts of Saddam Hussein loyalists, pro-American clerics, Shiite protesters, armed tribesman and shady foreign fighters. To heighten the verisimilitude, street signs are written in Arabic, and livestock wander freely.

Everyone wears laser-sensitive devices that beep loudly when someone is hit by gunfire. Days are filled with unexpected challenges: looting, the inadvertent destruction of a home, demonstrations by unpaid war veterans or the funeral of an imam.

Among the actors are dozens of Iraqi-Americans who have been recruited from across the country. Hussain Talbani, a former television anchor in Kirkuk, plays an aggressive radio reporter.

"I do my best to be provocative," Mr. Talbani said. "We train them to respond, not to run away."

Although some are simply drawn by enticing compensation up to $7,000 for each monthlong rotation most role players say they are eager to help American forces bring peace and stability to their homeland. Many are like Rahim Altalebawi, a former member of the Iraqi Army who escaped to this country after the Persian Gulf war in 1991, when he joined a failed revolt against Mr. Hussein.

"I wanted to return the favor, to show my appreciation for what the Americans did for me," said Mr. Altalebawi, 37, a cook from Louisville, Ky.

A platoon translator, Mr. Altalebawi said he had two goals: to help reduce casualties among civilians and soldiers, and to give American troops advice for winning over an increasingly skeptical population.

"They don't understand anything about my country so I do what I can to help," he said.

If the 39th Brigade's performance one recent day was any indication, the training has had mixed results. During a postoperation evaluation delivered in a downpour, instructors criticized the men for driving too fast, for allowing protesters to break into their ranks and for failing to communicate with one another after their patrol turned chaotic.

But the most egregious mistake occurred on their way to the market, when troops fired on a speeding pick-up truck as it tried to pass the convoy of Humvees and troop carriers. In Iraq, Sgt. Mitchell Moery pointed out, drivers may be aggressive but it does not make them dangerous.

"An unarmed civilian is now dead," he shouted to the men. "What you did today would have caused an international incident."

Down the road, a platoon of New York State guardsmen conducting a house-to-house weapons search was also upbraided: the men had left their translator unprotected as they moved through a mock village. With a $25,000 price on their heads, translators are often singled out for assassination.

"The terrorists know that if they kill us, the Americans are blind," said Ari Amedi, a translator who fled from the Kurdish portion of the country seven years ago.

For the troops, many of whom have never left their home states, the cultural lessons received high marks. Specialist Kenneth Futrell Jr., a tractor salesman from Wynne, Ark., summed it up this way: "Basically what I learned is if you show respect, you'll get respect."

Still, for a fair number of guardsmen, many of whom never expected to see overseas combat, no amount of preparation will soothe their anxiety about the dangers that lay ahead.

"We're grateful for the training," said Staff Sgt. Frank Horton, 41, a salesman from Jacksonville, Ark. "But a lot of us are real nervous. We just want to do our jobs and hopefully come back in one piece."

Red Cross Visits Hussein

BAGHDAD, Iraq, Feb. 21 (AP) International Red Cross representatives visited Saddam Hussein on Saturday for the first time since his capture in December.

Two Red Cross delegates, one a doctor, met Mr. Hussein at an undisclosed detention site inside Iraq, a spokeswoman for the International Committee of the Red Cross, Nada Doumani, said from Jordan.

"The aim of this visit is to track and monitor the conditions of detention and treatment of the detainee," Ms. Doumani said.

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company

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