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Ft. Irwin stands in for Iraq

COLUMN ONE

At the Army base in the Mojave Desert, emigre actors and Hollywood sets help prepare U.S. soldiers for the life and warfare they are about to encounter.

August 31, 2009|Alexandra Zavis

Looking every inch a governor, the thickset Iraqi, in a pinstripe jacket, sits behind an imposing desk and glares at his American guest.

When he drove to work that morning, Bassam Kalasho informed the newly arrived Army colonel, he found the road full of American checkpoints and his office surrounded by American soldiers.

"It looks like you took over," he said, his voice growing louder with every word.

Sometimes he gets so worked up, he said later, he forgets that his "office" is on an Army base in California and that he is only pretending to be an Iraqi provincial governor.

At the National Training Center at Ft. Irwin, in the vastness of the Mojave Desert, fiction has a way of blurring into reality. When the Muslim call to prayer sounds across the sandy wilderness, villages fill with sights and sounds of distant lands. Robed men congregate in coffee shops. Vendors weave through narrow alleys, hawking fruit, flowers and cups of sugary tea. And helicopters streak across a pale pink sky.

This is one of the last stops for U.S. military brigades headed to Iraq. During two weeks of intensive role-playing, they practice dealing with bomb blasts, gunfights, angry demonstrations, corrupt officials and sectarian rifts. All of them fake.

The soldiers who run the huge Hollywood-style production compare it to a reality TV show or a multimillion-dollar game of laser tag. But for about 250 Iraqi immigrants, hired by the Army to play elected officials, security officers and traditional leaders, it is something more: a piece of home.

Many of them fill the center's showcase village: Medina Wasl -- Arabic for Junction City.

"I've been doing this so long, I'm a Medina Wasl citizen now," Kalasho, 54, said with a throaty chuckle.

He has a wife and son in San Diego, but for two weeks of most months, he lives in one of the converted shipping containers that make up Medina Wasl's homes and businesses. The main actors are given pages of information to learn about their characters, including their religious, tribal and political affiliations. Many seem to embrace their roles as extensions of themselves.

"I used to play the deputy mayor of Medina Wasl," Kalasho said. "In 2008, I got promoted. Now I like it more. . . . I have my bodyguards, my car. I am a powerful man over here."

Life was very different for Kalasho in the real Iraq. The son of a Christian hotel owner in the Shiite Muslim city of Babil, he was isolated and bullied in school. Three decades ago, he left for America. He moved in with a school friend and they opened a liquor store in Compton. The money was good, he said, but the crime was unnerving.

Kalasho had just gotten engaged when the owner of a neighboring store was shot and killed. So in the early 1980s he moved to San Diego, where his family could have the support of a large Iraqi Christian community. When the Army needed help in training the troops, that is where its recruiters looked.

The work pays between $2,000 and $5,000 per two-week rotation, more than most jobs immigrants can find. But Kalasho, now a U.S. citizen, said he has other motivation.

"I took the job not just because I am an American and I want to do something for my country but because I want to help Iraq too," he said. The troops "come here, they make all their mistakes here and they don't make them there."

Kalasho said he did not expect that he too would learn from the experience. Once, he said, he would have defended Saddam Hussein for protecting Iraq's minority Christians. Meeting Shiites and ethnic Kurds at Ft. Irwin who had experienced Hussein's brutality changed his opinion.

Working with the Army also gave Kalasho new respect for American soldiers.

"You don't realize what a sacrifice they are making until you know them," he said.

For two decades before U.S.-led forces invaded Iraq in 2003, Ft. Irwin's wide-open spaces were used to stage major tank battles, preparing troops for conventional warfare. But in Iraq, U.S. troops found themselves fighting insurgents who struck stealthily, then melted back into the population. And U.S. troops, unfamiliar with local languages and culture, alienated Iraqi communities.

One of the Army's solutions was to re-create a 1,000-square-kilometer stretch of Iraq at Ft. Irwin. Members of the 11th Armored Cavalry -- which plays the "opposing force" in the training exercises -- traded in their Soviet-style uniforms for tunics and head-scarves, stopped shaving and started studying bomb-making techniques. Contractors were hired to build base camps, tunnel complexes and Iraqi-style villages.

When Kalasho first saw Medina Wasl in 2005, the place was just a strip of containers along a dirt road. The Army later sought help from Hollywood to make the villages more realistic. Set builders sprayed stucco onto the containers to re-create the facades of a typical Iraqi town. They painted Arabic signs on the walls, draped clothes from washing lines, filled baskets with plastic fruit and placed broken-down pickup trucks in the road.

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