Staging area for success in Iraq

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.

There are now about 200 buildings in Medina Wasl. There are even goats and donkeys, but they must be penned in because of coyotes.

Special-effects crews create thundering explosions. Masked gunmen fire blanks from windows and alleys. Actors with gory wounds painted on by makeup artists writhe and scream. The scenes are so realistic, they have triggered flashbacks in some soldiers. But the dead here pick themselves up at the end of an exercise.

Although the bloodshed is fake, the real war is never far away. Many of the actors have families in Iraq, people who could be killed if word were to get out about their relatives' work for the U.S. military.

A 42-year-old woman, who hides behind dark glasses and asks that her name not be published, said militants burned her local baker to death in his own oven for less than that. A Shiite married to a Sunni Muslim, she fled to San Diego last year.

"Hearing the mosque, the people, it makes me feel like I'm in Iraq," she said, her eyes moist with tears. "I miss home. I hope God helps America to rebuild my country."

Ft. Irwin was the first Army training facility to start hiring Iraqi and other Middle Eastern emigres for such exercises, beginning in 2005. Before then, soldiers performed all the roles.

In all, more than 2,000 soldiers and civilians fill Ft. Irwin's 13 training villages. They include about 240 residents of nearby Barstow, who are bused in daily wearing long robes over jeans and sneakers. For the speaking roles, the Army hires Iraqis and other emigres. Because they come from farther away, they stay in the villages, which they have adopted as their own.

Janan, a veteran of Hussein's army who was accidentally gassed by fellow Iraqis in the 1980s war with Iran, is as handy with tools as the engineer he plays. He converted his character's store into a tidy house. There is a kitchen, where he produces pots of steaming stew on a hot-plate. A large wooden cross hangs from a bedroom wall.

"This is my home now," said Janan, 50, who gave only his first name out of concern for relatives.

As circumstances have changed in Iraq, so has life in Medina Wasl. When the country plunged into civil war, Medina Wasl was divided into Sunni and Shiite sections, and the "bodies" piled up during the exercises.

"We never slept," Kalasho said. Soldiers in training "would come at 3, 4 in the morning and kick the door: 'Get out! Get out!' "

But as the killing grew less frequent in Iraq, the role-players found themselves spending more time in meetings about the country's electricity, water, health and education needs.

Late one afternoon, Kalasho found Muayad Sofi in his blue police chief's uniform, playing poker with fellow Kurds.

"It's exactly like Iraq," Kalasho said, laughing. "The police sit in the coffee shop all day, and when something happens, then they go."

Sofi, 33, had worked for U.S. forces in northern Iraq during the 1990s and was eager to work with them again after he resettled here. Not long after he arrived on base in 2005, one soldier cornered him and demanded to know what Iraqis were doing at Ft. Irwin.

"I told him I am here to help you," Sofi said, fingering worry beads. "He grabbed my arm and twisted it behind my back."

U.S. officers were quick to apologize and discipline the soldier, he said. Later, Sofi learned that the soldier's best friend had been killed in Iraq.

Relations are much improved these days. "They respect us," Sofi said.

At the end of the day, the Iraqis gather in a dusty courtyard to grill meat and play dominoes late into the night. A boom box blasts Arabic pop tunes. An occasional crackle of automatic rifle fire sounds in the distance -- perhaps another staged attack.

Kalasho said he is convinced that the work Iraqis do here has saved lives.

As attention shifts to Afghanistan, Medina Wasl is periodically converted into an Afghan village. Kalasho's only worry is that the U.S. might pull out of Iraq too soon.

"We have to finish the job," he said.

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alexandra.zavis@latimes.com

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