COLOGNE, GERMANY — The US Army is seeking 500 Arabs and Kurds for a special mission.
Those who sign up will be shipped off to villages with names like Tikrit and Fallujah, where they'll don dishdashas and head scarves and live in crowded huts surrounded by rumbling tanks and the crackle of machine guns. Their neighbors will be Shiites and Sunnis, soldiers and insurgents.
Iraq? No, it's the Joint Multinational Readiness Center (JMRC) in Bavaria.
The Army has built a dozen mock villages complete with shops, gas stations, mosques, and prisons at the installation. The US army says making simulations more realistic saves both American and Iraqi lives.
It's now seeking hundreds of Arabs and Kurds to play Iraqi civilians in an elaborate three-week war game beginning March 20. Some will play imams or shopkeepers, others housewives or politicians. Most will speak only Arabic and pretend not to understand soldiers.
But there's a hitch: Unlike in the US, where hundreds of Iraqi Americans have eagerly taken part in life-like training exercises, many Arabs here are so angry at the US that the contractor charged with recruiting role players has been struggling to fill its quota.
"As soon as they hear it involves working with the US military, many people want nothing to do with it," says one recruiter, who asked that his name be withheld.
Interviews with more than a dozen candidates for the program revealed not only a distaste among Arab Germans about being involved with the US war effort, but a deep mistrust of overall American intentions.
The news magazine Der Spiegel reported that a number of candidates stalked out of the first casting session last month in Berlin when they learned whom they'd be working for. Of about 50 people there, fewer than five signed on.
At more recent sessions in Hamburg, Cologne, and Munich, recruiters have taken pains to assure would-be participants that they won't be cast as "the enemy." But many attendees still balked at spending three weeks surrounded by Black Hawk helicopters and green American soldiers, especially given the terms.
Once role players step off the bus at the JMRC, they will cut ties with the outside world. Television, cellphones, computers and cameras are banned, and participants are allowed only two phone calls a week. The pay? About $130 a day.
"Under those conditions, they could do anything to us, " says Amir Shamat, a middle-aged Libyan-born man who attended the casting session in Cologne last Thursday. "They could use us as guinea pigs for chemical weapons or radiation tests."
Many of the candidates also worried that the increased interest in Iraqi culture was a sign that the US was settling in for a long occupation.
Among them was Kamal Said, an older Baghdad native whose sister still lives in the city. He says that she spends her days huddled in a single room with her family so that "they all die together."
When Adil Synsche, a young man from Morocco, was asked by a man sitting next to him if he planned to take part, he leaped to his feet, shouting, "I will not help the Americans hurt my brothers!'' he recounted. "Everyone with any sense knows they're just there for the oil."
To be sure, there is one group that's eager to help: Iraqi Kurds, the only pro-American segment of the Iraqi population.
Ibrahim Bakhteyar, who works for the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan in Germany and who turned up at the Cologne session, called the new training program "a gift to my country."
Detektei Service and Security, the recruiting company, says its making progress towards filling its quota. JMRC officials declined to comment on the recruiting of role-players.
The JMRC, one of the Army's three major training centers, has relied mostly on Germans to play Iraqis in the past, unlike its stateside counterparts, which work with hundreds of Iraqi-Americans. Though hiring Iraqis has raised some security concerns – at Fort Irwin in California, foreign-born role players are screened more carefully than Americans – military trainers say the extra touch of realism helps prepare recruits to avoid cultural gaffes and ease tense situations.
"It makes a world of difference," says Fort Irwin spokesman Kenneth Drylie. "The soldiers come out more confident and better prepared for what's happening on the ground."
Troops use the sites to learn how to do everything from raids to humanitarian operations in the least inflammatory way. In one JMRC scenario, soldiers try to nab a sniper in a minaret without laying waste to the mosque he's hiding in.
The role players are expected to stay in character for most of their waking hours and to play their roles faithfully. Waiters spend their days serving real drinks and snacks. Lawyers negotiate agreements between military and political leaders.
At Fort Irwin, each villager belongs to a clan that stretches across village boundaries, so if a soldier roughs up a civilian, GIs in a neighboring town find friendly villagers quickly turning surly. Combat feels as close to the real thing as possible, and some soldiers have been known to start crying in standoffs with villagers.
"The goal is to create the most realistic training possible," says Maj. Eric Bloom of JMRC. "We train the way we fight."