Baghdad on the bayou

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FORT POLK, La. — A combat readiness training center at this remote base in Louisiana once prepared U.S. soldiers for infantry gunbattle with Soviet forces. These days, the focus of the training is fighting insurgents in crowded Iraqi villages with cultural sensitivity and limiting civilian casualties.

A cluster of fabricated neighborhoods represents Iraq’s chaotic urban battlefield. Combat brigades numbering as many as 5,000 soldiers spend three weeks living and fighting there.

Aggressive paratroopers trained in insurgent tactics prowl the swamps. Actors and local residents wearing Middle Eastern-style clothing stand in for Iraqi civilians. Iraqi expatriates play the roles of tribal leaders and town mayors. Combatants and civilians alike wear vests that detect lasers beamed by modified weapons that fire noisy blanks. Pyrotechnics specialists add smoke and explosions to simulate improvised explosive devices. Combat veteran “observer-controllers” referee clashes among trainees, “insurgents” and restive civilians.

Soldiers have complained that training at Fort Polk’s Joint Readiness Training Center is harder than combat in Iraq. Center commander Brig. Gen. Michael Barbero says that is the point.

“We want their worst day to be at Fort Polk and not in Baghdad.”

With the spread of small wars and insurgencies like those in Iraq and Afghanistan, Fort Polk has shifted gears from the Cold War-era battle readiness. Now winning hearts and minds is as important as winning firefights.

“We could go over there in theater and kill every bad guy, but that doesn’t mean we will be successful,” said Maj. Eric Baus, center spokesman. Like in Iraq, he added, success for trainees at Fort Polk means convincing the populace to point out insurgents and make them unwelcome in their villages.

But winning over civilians is hard when insurgents blend in, strike on crowded streets and draw U.S. fire that kills innocents.

During a June 5 exercise, soldiers from the Texas-based 1st Cavalry Division, slated to deploy to Iraq in a few weeks, patrolled a street in a simulated village. Actors portraying Iraqi vendors gathered around the Humvees and trucks. Then a bomb exploded, rockets streaked in from the countryside and insurgents attacked with small arms. Civilians screamed and scattered; some fell to the ground writhing from imaginary wounds. One actor, an amputee, was wearing gory makeup to replicate massive trauma.

U.S. troops returned fire, gathered up some of the wounded and raced away, leaving some casualties untreated.

Observer-controllers at the exercise said that despite the civilian casualties and their failure to evacuate all the wounded, the unit’s effort was stellar. It was enough that the Capt. Robert Nevins, the unit commander, maintained control of his troops in a chaotic situation.

However, leaving injured civilians behind makes Capt. Nevins and his troops unpopular with the locals. To head off an uprising, the next day Capt. Nevins meets with a Kurdish-born American portraying a tribal sheik.

These meetings are hosted at Fort Polk’s new “Engagement University,” a series of rooms decorated to look like Iraqi homes and monitored by closed-circuit TV cameras. Specialists in Iraqi culture take notes as Capt. Nevins and other commanders work out problems caused by failures in past exercises.

Capt. Nevins’ Iraqi counterpart is skeptical despite the commander’s apologies. The sheik brings up the purported massacre in Haditha — where Marines are accused of killing two dozen innocent Iraqis in November — and puts Capt. Nevins on the defensive.

“We try to make our scenarios as relevant as possible,” explains Lt. Col. Dennis Smith, director of Engagement University.

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