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US Troops Training for War Also Focus on Expected Displaced Iraqis

In Kuwait, U.S. troops preparing to fight a war in Iraq are also focused on how to deal with the millions of displaced Iraqi civilians they are likely to encounter.

United Nations officials are predicting that a war in Iraq could send millions of civilians fleeing into neighboring countries and leave millions more in Iraq in need of immediate assistance.

The members of the 15th U.S. Marine Expeditionary Unit, currently training at a desolate desert camp in northern Kuwait, say they are well aware of the potential scenario. In recent weeks, many of the 2,100 men and women of the unit have attended classes aimed at teaching them the need to balance their military objectives with legal and moral obligations to civilians.

A Navy medic attached to the unit, Petty Officer Freddie Artaga, said civil affairs instructors have been giving each marine a clear message. "You don't want to just go in there and destroy. We actually have another objective, which is to help whatever country, not just to rebuild, but just help people when they need it," she said.

U.S. Marine expeditionary units, like this one, already have considerable experience in dealing with civilians. Many have been involved in peacekeeping operations and disaster relief in various parts of the world. Their humanitarian missions routinely require working with local people to build such things as schools and medical clinics.

But most of the marines here are in their late teens and early 20s, and have had no experience handling civilians during actual combat.

Second Lieutenant Carl Martinez said the men in his platoon have serious concerns about being able to identify an innocent civilian from a combatant. They have heard rumors that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein is preparing to disguise some of his elite soldiers as civilians in an attempt to catch U.S. troops off guard and kill them.

"That's really the difficult part. I mean, if someone is shooting at you, they're obviously being hostile. But there is the possibility that you have one or two Iraqis, who are trying to blend in with civilians. He's out there to cause trouble, and that's the hard part, to identify those individuals," Mr. Martinez said.

Civil Affairs instructors have been teaching the marines to stay calm, and to use common sense, giving them guidelines about what to look for, if civilians approach their position. For example, if a civilian is wearing a bulky jacket on a hot day, there is a good chance that he or she is hiding a weapon.

The instructors acknowledge that in a war situation, it is possible that stressed and tired U.S. troops will assume the worst and behave badly toward civilians seeking help. They said there may even be tragic cases of mistaken identity.

Such events, they tell the marines, could jeopardize any good will the Iraqi people may feel toward the United States for attempting to remove Saddam Hussein from power.

Young U.S. marines here now know that, in this war, being alert and having good people skills will be nearly as important as good fighting skills.