Simulated City Preps Marines for Reality of Iraq Before going to Iraq, Marines visit Wadi al-Sahara, a fictional Iraqi town where Iraqi role players re-create many of the same situations found in Iraqi cities. This training exercise is designed to help Marines work with Iraqis and avoid conflict.
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Simulated City Preps Marines for Reality of Iraq

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Simulated City Preps Marines for Reality of Iraq

Simulated City Preps Marines for Reality of Iraq

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

As we heard in his news conference, General Odierno pointed to the western Iraqi province of Anbar as one region where the situation seems to be stabilizing. Anbar is where more Marines are based.

Before they leave for Iraq, each Marine has to visit a fictional Anbar village, Wadi al-Sahara. It's located in the Marine base at Twentynine Palms in the Mojave Desert of Southern California, and it's where the Marines are now learning about counterinsurgency techniques.

NPR defense correspondent Guy Raz visited with one Marine battalion that is about to return to Iraq.

GUY RAZ: The souk, or the old marketplace, in Wadi al-Sahara is already open for business. It's just past daybreak here, and there are clusters of men hawking old refrigerators and tires out of disused shipping containers.

(Soundbite of crowd noise)

RAZ: This morning, a company from the 3rd Battalion 7th Marine Regiment is on patrol here. The company is supposed to move through the town as gently as possible.

Unidentified Man: (Speaking foreign language)

RAZ: This is a training mission. It's called Mojave Viper. It's the most extensive simulated training exercise the U.S. military has to offer, and it's brand-new. It's a training regimen shaped in part by feedback from Marines who have already served in Iraq, like 21-year-old Corporal Michael Watts.

Corporal MICHAEL WATTS (U.S. Marine Corps): The training has evolved so much that it's like - when we were doing training like this, there is never any role players or anybody to, you know, like simulate, just civilians that are just wondering what's going on and looking around and doing their everyday things.

So when we got there and there were other people besides the enemy, it kind of like threw us on our heels. You know, all we trained for was like the enemy were the only ones on the streets.

RAZ: On the streets of the village here, there are about 500 Iraqi role players, all of them born in Iraq. We'll hear from some of them in a moment. But first, to understand the philosophy behind Mojave Viper, you've got to meet Lieutenant Colonel Andrew Kennedy. His mantra goes something like this.

Lieutenant Colonel ANDREW KENNEDY (U.S. Marine): It's always better to capture than to kill. And it's always better to turn than to capture.

RAZ: Colonel Kennedy says, kill an enemy, you get nothing. Capture him, you might learn something. But turn him, win him over, and you get a valuable spy.

Lt. Col. KENNEDY: And I was wondering, you know, if there is something that I could do for you.

RAZ: Colonel Kennedy is the counterinsurgency guru at Twentynine Palms. His classroom is basically a large air-conditioned trailer in the middle of the California desert. His students are Marines on their way to Iraq, often for a second or a third tour. And the lesson he's now often teaching is how not to fight.

Lt. Col. KENNEDY: And there are going to be times when you need to take a deep breath and not go head to head. You need to foresee the opportunity for conflict and avoid it.

RAZ: Colonel Kennedy is a big man. He's fit and barrel-chested, and he usually is chomping on an unlit cigar. Almost everyday, Kennedy works the phones to Iraq. He is an obsessive reader of what are called after-action reports. They're basically the written accounts of each and every mission, large or small, undertaken in Iraq.

Lt. Col. KENNEDY: Everything that we do here is a direct result of reports that come to us from people who are over there.

RAZ: These days, Kennedy is focused on connections. In other words, he wants the young Marines who hear him out to think about one word when they're in Iraq: relationships.

Lt. Col. KENNEDY: A part of what we try to do is make people aware that you have to have connections. And maybe there's a shopkeeper that you meet who you can talk a couple words to and order chai at his place. And you do that for a few weeks, a month, two months. This is someone who you now have a relationship with, and he'll talk to you about some things.

Mr. AHMED EL ADEB: Protect your interpreter, even in the safe area. Okay? Don't leave him by himself.

RAZ: On the other side of Wadi al-Sahara, a company of Marines listens intently to Ahmed el Adeb. He's a political refugee from Baghdad, and he's now teaching small groups of Marines everything from language to cultural sensibility.

Mr. EL ABED: When you get into the houses, please don't use the F-word too much.

RAZ: El Adeb offers simple but practical pointers. Don't use the F-word, especially if women are around. Most Iraqis know what it means. When you meet a sheikh or a tribal leader, look him in the eye.

Mr. EL ABED: The Iraqis, every little things you've been doing in Iraq, they will watch it. Okay? And they will tell you, look, the big signs that they come with, they say, hey, we're here to help you. But look at them, what they do.

RAZ: This part of the training goes on for about a month, and for the last two weeks, the Marines live and work and sleep on small bases just outside the village of Wadi al-Sahara. Their base is almost identical to the places they'll call home for eight months in Anbar province.

Unidentified Man: Take one. Take one. This is Gator(ph) One.

This is the command operations center at the base. It's a large tent with half a dozen computers and some radio gear. A dry erase board tallies the number of daily and weekly attacks in the area of operations.

(Soundbite of a radio conversation)

A young platoon commander, 23-year-old Ryan Maloney, he's a recent graduate of Boston University, is ordered to find out who's shooting in the village. So Maloney goes outside to brief the 35 Marines under his command.

Mr. RYAN MALONEY (Platoon Commander, Marines): If one fire one casualty. Which...

RAZ: Maloney's platoon is divided into three squads. The first squad is led by a 20-year-old Corporal, Morgan Ballis. He's from Tucson. Ballis has already served one tour in Iraq. He's barely old enough to shave, but he's more battle-hardened than many troops twice his age.

Corporal Ballis and the squad enter the outskirts of the village in an amtrak, it's an amphibious tractor that's used as a transport vehicle.

Corporal MORGAN BALLIS (U.S. Marines): Stevens, push right. Get flight(ph) security. Second team, push right. First team, get up over the order-to-order movement.

RAZ: The amtrak won't enter Wadi al-Sahara - that's too provocative - so the Marines dismount. They walk into town. And in fact, dismounted patrols are now the most common type carried out by Marines in many sectors of Anbar province.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

Unidentified Man: Where does it come from, Greg(ph)?

RAZ: The squad locates a house where they believe a sniper is hidden.

Unidentified Man: Go, John.

RAZ: They go in and find two men.

Unidentified Group: (Arabic spoken)

RAZ: The men are searched, but the Marines find nothing. It's a typical encounter these Marines will experience in Iraq, and they train to deal with mistakes as best they can.

Unidentified Man#2: I'm sorry for the inconvenience. I apologize.

Unidentified Man#3: (Arabic spoken)

Unidentified Man#4: He said if you're dealing with people in Iraq like this, in the future, the Iraqi people don't like this dealing with the Iraqi people. Maybe in the future, should be that same people work with terrorists here.

RAZ: It's a lesson for Corporal Ballis and the squad and all of the men of the 3rd Battalion 7th Marines. Being polite is now considered a force protection priority by top Marine strategists. The fewer enemies you make, the fewer Marines get killed.

Guy Raz, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

NORRIS: Here's another one of the stories we're following today. The Justice Department has released more documents concerning the dismissal of eight fired U.S. attorneys. One document contradicts congressional testimony by former Justice Department chief of staff Kyle Sampson.

Sampson said when the U.S. attorneys were dismissed last December, the Justice Department did not have successors in mind. An e-mail released today shows they actually considered successors almost a year ago. Another document is a spreadsheet that ranks all 93 of the prosecutors based on whether they have Hill experience, campaign experience, and are members of a conservative legal group.

Coming up on the program, what happens when a radio host calls on his listeners to visit a Web site, a lot of his listeners? Those stories are next on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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