Opinion

Iraqi-Americans work as actors at mock Iraq in Colorado to help soldiers prepare for combat

FORT CARSON, Colo.—The mayor of the Iraqi village of al Sharq, Wisam Hindi, isn't a happy camper, and Lt. Col. Bob Price, commander of Thunder Squadron 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, is feeling the sharp edge of the mayor's anger.

"You are late again for our meeting," Hindi thunders, as two translators struggle to keep up with his burst of Arabic. "This is disrespectful. All I hear from you Americans is the word `sorry.' All talk, all promises, and nothing ever happens."

Price, an Army brat who says he was born in Texas but "grew up everywhere," is patient and keeps eye contact with the angry mayor. "Sir, we will start fresh from today," he said. "We want to provide security for your town, and we want your help with that."

Hindi isn't through with Price yet. "The insurgents came last night and shot one of our people. He died because the medical supplies you Americans promised us long ago never arrived. Your troops weren't here to protect us. If you aren't going to provide security, then just leave and we will do it ourselves. I am sick of empty words."

The 5,000-plus soldiers of the Army's 3rd Armored Cavalry are midway through a mission readiness exercise that involves dealing with mock Iraqi towns and villages built on this sprawling 137,000-acre base outside Colorado Springs, Colo.

More than 200 Iraqi-Americans, mostly from San Diego, play the parts of the people who live there.

Their job is to make things as hard as possible for the American soldiers and their commanders. Nearly half the soldiers of the 3rd Armored Cavalry, nicknamed the Brave Rifles, are combat veterans heading for their second tour in Iraq with only a nine-month break in between.

"This is my way of giving something back to this country for giving me a future," said Hindi, who plays the mayor. "I want these soldiers to leave here with a better knowledge of Iraqi culture, the do's and don'ts, how you negotiate with an Iraqi official. I want them to succeed."

The mayors and religious leader role-players are paid $6,000 for a three-week deployment. The townspeople earn about $100 per day; their pay is tied to actors guild rates.

Lest you think the money is good and the work easy, it was 4 degrees and snow and ice were blowing when they got to Fort Carson after a 36-hour bus ride from San Diego. They live, work and eat in the flimsy plywood and tin buildings of their village 24/7 during this exercise, keeping warm around wood fires built in 55-gallon drums.

Hindi fled Iraq in 1999 after years of living in fear. He said that in 1982 he was a successful engineer when his life changed in an instant. His car was hit by another driven by Saddam Hussein's playboy son, Odai.

Hindi was dragged out of his car and "beaten within an inch of my life" by Odai's bodyguards, he said. Then he was thrown in prison for two months of daily torture and beatings. When assassins attempted to kill Odai in 1996, Hindi was detained as part of a general roundup, thrown in prison and tortured again. He made several attempts to flee Iraq before eventually succeeding.

At Fort Carson, it is Capt. Fred Adams' turn to face a different Iraqi mayor in the more substantially built mock town of Medina Jabal. The young captain, a native of Marshall, Texas, and a 1998 graduate of West Point, isn't having any easier a time than Price did in his town.

Mayor Jay Mussa wants medical supplies for the United Nations doctor who runs the clinic in Medina Jabal. He needs water and a mechanic to fix the generator that provides electricity to the town. He wants the Americans to train his police. Adams complains that the insurgents are coming into the village at night, and he has intelligence that someone is manufacturing improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in the town.

Mussa has his police chief present. The Americans agree to train the police. But that night, insurgents come into the town and shoot a policeman. As the chief and another of his men rush the wounded man to the nearest hospital, an American unit shoots at the speeding pickup truck and kills the chief and his men.

The Army usually holds exercises like this at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif., in the Mojave Desert. This time, however, Brig. Gen. Bob Cone, the tactical operations commander at the NTC, has brought the experience to Fort Carson.

And the more realistic Cone makes things, the more the fog of war begins to operate with a vengeance.

A troop (a company of 130 soldiers) of Price's squadron is tasked to go into al Sharq and seize an insurgent who's in the local hotel to deliver an IED and cash to a villager. A simple snatch-and-grab mission. But nothing is simple in this place or in Iraq. The target has four armed bodyguards hiding in nearby buildings.

The soldiers on the raid have their backs to the insurgent bodyguards. The first American around the corner is shot in the back. The next dashes across the main street, ducks behind a pile of firewood and starts shooting at the local police. A bodyguard shoots and drops him. A Bradley Fighting Vehicle roars into town and stops right beside an open door, where one insurgent is hiding. The Bradley commander is sitting up in the turret and is shot and killed.

Finally, the hotel door is smashed in. The bomb maker shoots one of the Americans, then is shot himself. The wounded American is, naturally, the biggest man on the rifle squad. Two smaller soldiers have to drag him to a Bradley, and even though it is make-believe, it's painful to watch.

The Americans are staying away from Medina Jabal this day, after killing the police chief and his officers. Anger is boiling over there.

Mussa, who's playing the mayor there, left Iraq in 1978 when he was 21. He came first to Detroit in 1980, then moved to California in 1984 and to San Diego in 1988. He became a U.S. citizen in 1986, and in 1993, he married a Palestinian who was born in Kuwait but fled when Saddam's army invaded in 1990.

Mussa, who sold cars for eight years, says he's thankful he can contribute to preparing American soldiers for the harsh realities of Iraq. He had a brother who was killed in the Iraq-Iran war. Another brother, a heart surgeon, was put in prison for two years by Saddam's secret police because he had treated a man who was wanted by them.

The soldiers of the 3rd Armored Cavalry may groan at the ceaseless hard training, but most are ready to go. Almost 500 of them re-enlisted in a mass ceremony here late last year.

When they board chartered planes in late February to head out to war, there will be a bunch of Iraqi-Americans quietly wishing them well and hoping that they learned the hard lessons of an ancient culture well.

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