The U.S. Army has built a piece of Iraq in Mississippi. In the woods along the dirt roads of a huge training base, the army has built fake Iraqi villages and bases for U.S. troops. It has also hired dozens of Arab-Americans to portray the roles of Iraqi villagers, and insurgents. The result is the most realistic training environment the army can create for soldiers preparing for duty in Iraq.
VILLAGERS: "[Arabic] Bush, Bush Ali Baba [thief]. No more Ali Baba. [Arabic]"
The Arab villagers are angry. After a short walk from their town to the U.S. checkpoint, they confront the soldiers, standing just centimeters away, shaking their fingers in the soldiers' faces. For the young soldiers from the National Guard in the Midwestern state of Wisconsin, it is an intimidating experience.
But they hold their ground at the entrance to the checkpoint, pushing back, as necessary but not overreacting. Two Arab men who break through are arrested. Then one of the soldiers identifies the leader of the group, the local sheikh, and invites him through the cordon.
VILLAGER: "[Arabic] [Translator] Who's in charge here?"
SOLDIER: "Lieutenant Benson. He's coming right now."
VILLAGERS: "No more USA. No more USA. Go home USA. Go home USA."
While the crowd continues to chant and push, Second Lieutenant William Benson seems to take forever to arrive.
LIEUTENANT BENSON: "I'm the platoon leader for this group."
VILLAGER: "My name is Mohammed Wusalim. Welcome."
After that promising opening, the negotiations get started.
LIEUTENANT BENSON: "What can we do to help you? What do you need?"
The sheikh's list is long. Among other things, he says the army promised to restore electricity and running water to his village, and has failed to do so. He wants help immediately, and he wants the two men who were arrested at the beginning of the demonstration released.
VILLAGER: "I need your help now, sir."
LIEUTENANT BENSON: "This is not the way to do it, to fix the problem. "
Lieutenant Benson says he has no supplies to provide at the moment, and will have to check with headquarters. He refuses to release the two men. The sheikh's frustration grows.
VILLAGER: "You've done your job. You got Saddam Hussein. Now go back to home."
The sheikh pushes Lieutenant Benson and the lieutenant issues an order.
A soldier fires fake tear gas. The air fills with smoke and the demonstrators retreat back down the road toward the village.
It was only an exercise, but it seemed so real that it clearly affected the soldiers and their lieutenant.
"It was challenging. It was different. We haven't done anything like this before," said Lieutenant Benson.
Lieutenant Benson has been in the National Guard, a reserve force, for nine years. He has never before been activated and deployed to a war zone, and he has never been through anything like this training. And although he had to use the tear gas in this incident, no one got hurt and his trainer, Sergeant First Class Adrian Thomas, is pleased.
"They were pretty good there, sir," said Mr. Thomas.
Still for Sergeant Thomas and the other trainers at the base, there is always room for improvement.
"They could have opened up the negotiations faster," he explained. "They didn't necessarily have to wait until the platoon leader got down to this area. One of the soldiers could have just opened up the dialogue with that civilian, tried to calm him down, find out what he wanted, until that platoon leader got there."
So these formerly part-time soldiers from Wisconsin, who are heading to Iraq in a few weeks, will practice it again. And in the coming days they'll be hit with fake roadside bombs, phony rocket attacks and simulated sniper fire while they defend bogus checkpoints, raid artificial villages and provide security for make-believe convoys. The weight of their equipment and armor vests, and the Mississippi summer heat, will be real.
Army trainers say it's the best way they've found to bring the reality of Iraq to these men, a mix of university students, office workers and one logger.
Lieutenant Benson is a computer programmer for an insurance company. He usually spends one weekend a month and two weeks in the summer doing his National Guard training and service. Now, that all seems far away. He says after months of training in the classrooms and on the roads of Camp Shelby, his platoon is eager to get going.
"Everybody's excited to get over there and do a job successfully and come home safe," said Lieutenant Benson.
Getting home safely is about as far away for these men as their normal lives in Wisconsin. After a few more weeks of training, and a short vacation, they will head to Iraq for a scheduled yearlong deployment. Over there, the demonstrations and tear gas, and bombs and rockets, will be real. And getting home safely will depend in large part on what they learn on these dirt roads in a forest in Mississippi.