FORT IRWIN, California, Apr 20: This neat military town lies 7,500 miles (12,070 km) from Baghdad but drive west down the road into the desert and the landscape resembles western Iraq. The hazards are similar, too: roadside bombs, ambushes, suicide bombers, hit-and-run raids, kidnappings.
Fort Irwin is home to the US Army's National Training Center, covering almost 1,200 square miles (3,108 square km) in the Mojave Desert. The base serves as the last stop for tens of thousands of US troops before they ship out to Iraq and put into practice what they hope to learn here -- how to fight ruthless and innovative opponents without creating new enemies from the civilian population and without taking sides in Iraq's internal conflicts.
''What we provide here is military training at the graduate level,'' said Brigadier-General Robert Cone, the training centre's commander. ''It builds on what we are learning from Iraq. It's counterinsurgency, small-unit action. A fundamental change from the past.'' In the past, the Mojave Desert served as a training ground for tank warfare. Exercises pitted American armoured forces against ''Krasnovians'' in tanks modified to look like Soviet T-72s. Parked in neat rows, the tanks are still here, standing idle.
They last went into action in a big army-on-army exercise in June 2004 as the insurgency in Iraq gathered pace and the US death toll stood at around 800. It now exceeds 2,300. Widespread sectarian killings have added the prospect of all-out civil war to an already complex situation.
Once the emphasis switched from training for conventional war to counterinsurgency, the army built 12 mock Arab villages and populated them with 1,600 role players, including 250 men and women recruited from the Iraqi communities of San Diego and Detroit. Their roles range from sniper and suicide bomber to police chief and mayor.
KAMEL DOG CAFE
During the three weeks of a ''rotation,'' or training course, US soldiers live full-time in the simulated Iraq, in conditions more spartan than on US bases in the real Iraq.
They interact with the population -- real Iraqis and Americans in Arab robes -- on a daily basis, picking up Culture 101 in the process. Don't spit in front of an Iraqi, for example. Take off your gloves before shaking hands, don't show the soles of your shoes when you sit down.
''We are helping them (the soldiers) understand our traditions so that the mistakes made in Iraq before won't be repeated,'' said Bassam Kalasho, an Iraqi-American who plays deputy mayor of Medina Wasl, a dusty village with a mosque and a police station. ''The most important thing we can teach them is our culture.'' In December, the army magazine Military Review ran an article -- widely e-mailed among military commanders -- that said US forces in Iraq had, on occasion, acted ''like fuel on a smouldering fire'' and displayed cultural insensitivity amounting to ''institutional racism.''
The difficulty of balancing respect and suspicion is often highlighted in Medina Jabal, one of the bigger villages, where a former US tank commander has been acting as an insurgent bomb plotter for the past two years. Looking convincingly Iraqi with a headdress and a brown robe, Sergeant Tim Wilson of the Nevada National Guard in his role runs the only fast-food restaurant in the area, the Kamel Dog Cafe.
Serving hot dogs and burritos, the cafe is popular with troops in a nearby Forward Operating Base.
''I'm a friendly kind of guy, and they get to know me, and little by little they let their guard down. Eventually I walk through a checkpoint without being checked. And then, boom, they are dead. And learned a lesson.'' More than 70 cameras on rooftops and tall poles record such incidents for what is known as AARs (After Action Reports), blow-by-blow discussions of what went wrong or right. ''It's better to detect a unit's weaknesses here than there,'' said Cone.
The role-play scenarios, designed by psychological operations officers, echo events in Iraq. High tension between Shi'ites and Sunnis featured in war games days after the February 22 bomb attack on the Golden Mosque in Samarra triggered a wave of sectarian killings in Iraq.
A poster with photographs of the mosque before and after the bomb blew off the dome hangs in a shack used as an insurgent command post. ''They are trying to prevent us from praying to God,'' says the Arabic legend. ''Attack them!'' HIGH INTENSITY About 50,000 soldiers are expected to rotate through the training centre this year, most of them on their way to Iraq, others to Afghanistan. Parts of the area looks more like Afghanistan''s Helmand province than Iraq and the training includes combat in a network of tunnels such as those used by the Taliban and al Qaeda.
Nightly mortar attacks and frequent raids keep the troops awake and on edge. ''We reckon that a day here equals two weeks in Iraq in terms of intensity,'' said Major John Clearwater, the centre's public affairs officer. ''This is a very stressful environment, the most realistic training ground you can get.'' To make it even more realistic, the army plans to build a town large enough to have traffic jams and recreate the urban bustle of an Iraqi provincial centre.
While there are no live-fire exercises, the success or failure of an operation is monitored by a sophisticated version of laser tag, the Multiple Integrated Laser Engagement System (MILES). Everybody on the rotation wears a harness with sensors that assess damage from the laser ''bullets'' the opposing forces fire at each other.
For many of the soldiers, firing their weapons is the easier part. The more difficult aspect of the exercises is, for example, negotiating with villagers who claim compensation for damage done to their crops by US vehicles, yelling curses and rushing a checkpoint.
During a recent briefing on an operation to free two soldiers taken hostage by insurgents, Colonel Michael Kerhsaw of the 10th Mountain Division threw up a slide that highlighted the task facing US soldiers in Iraq. ''Counterinsurgency is armed social work,'' the headline said. ''An attempt to redress basic social and political problems while being shot at.''