Deep in the California desert, the U.S. military is training soldiers in the techniques of fighting an urban insurgency. The National Training Center at Fort Irwin, where troops work with Iraqi-Americans in mock villages that look like the real thing.
This seems to be an Iraqi town, complete with police station, mosque, school, and populations of Shi'ite and Sunni Muslims. It is one of 12 mock villages at this army base northeast of Los Angeles, on the edge of the barren region known as Death Valley.
Four to 5,000 soldiers come here each month for combat training.
Colonel Pete Bayer commands the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, which instructs other troops in the skills they need for duty in Iraq or Afghanistan. "Our mission is to prepare the soldiers that are here today that will be in country in several months to survive their first contact. And that can be as simple as a young sergeant leading an infantry squad on a dismounted patrol through a town and he encounters some of the local populace who are not violent, but they're agitated," he says.
The troops must not overreact, but must be ready to respond to the unexpected. The unexpected happens often at Ft. Irwin.
Lieutenant Pete Kalogiros leads a group of American soldiers who portray insurgents in one mock Iraqi village. "We get input from Iraq. Guys call us, our people back here from Iraq, and tell us what's going on there. We're getting constant updates on what the tactics and the techniques are that the insurgents over there in Afghanistan, Iraq and the other countries, are using. And we incorporate that into our training," he says.
Iraqi-Americans work with the troops, portraying villagers. This woman says the soldiers are curious. "You know, they're just trying to learn so much more about our culture. And that's what we're here for, to teach them," she says.
The troops are drilled in the rules of engagement, so they know when to shoot and when to hold their fire. Iraqi-American Sam Kalasho hopes they will exercise care in the stress and confusion of combat. "The main thing we try to teach them is to not kill innocent people, to respect the good people, to help the Iraqi people to stand up again and be free Iraq again," he says. "So what we do over here, we teach them everything they are going to find in Iraq. We do the same thing here. We meet with them. We give them a hard time. They give us a hard time. We want this. We ask for this. They help us. So always there is something wrong. There are mistakes. When it happens here, we can work it out. But when they go over there, we don't allow mistakes to happen."
The troops must be alert and sort out what is happening to separate those who pose a threat from innocent bystanders.
"There's a guy in the school with a gun," shouts one soldier.
There will be successes and failures, and John Wagstaff of the National Training Center says a soldier may die every day in his two weeks of training. "And the value to that is, by dying 14 days here, maybe you won't die once in Iraq, which is for real," he says.
The troops encounter the heat, apprehension and uncertainty that they will face in a few months in Iraq or Afghanistan.
The military hopes their time at the National Training Center will make them better prepared when they get there.