Iraqi expatriates play civilian roles to help train US troops for battlefield conditions

Abid Saeed, who's played everyone from a radical cleric to a police chief, may be the Al Pacino of military 'extras.'

The sheikh, a charismatic figure dressed in an ankle-length dishdasha, seems intent on provoking a riot – or worse. Prostrate before an entry gate at a US military base, he shouts anti-American slogans between his chanted prayers, speaking in rapid Arabic and gesticulating madly.

He and other Iraqi villagers are enraged that one of their young men was mistakenly gunned down by nervous soldiers when their military post came under sniper fire. The mob storms the chain-link fence. Suddenly, a bomb explodes. Two protesters fall, wounded by a grenade tossed by an insurgent mixed in with the crowd. The sheikh and the mob flee. The soldiers, mercifully, hold their fire.

The staged scene at a mock forward operating post in the sand hills of North Carolina is intended to prepare US soldiers for counterinsurgency warfare before deploying to Iraq. But the exercise is made more real by role players like Abid Saeed, an energetic Iraqi expatriate who may just be the Al Pacino of military "extras."

Nicknamed "Hollywood," Mr. Saeed has been bringing flamboyant energy to parts as varied as an Iraqi police chief, village mayor, and, in this case, a radical sheikh at US military bases almost full-time since 2004. A Shiite who was part of the unsuccessful 1991 uprising against Saddam Hussein in his native Basra, Saeed spent six years in an internment camp in Saudi Arabia before immigrating to the US in 1997.

He is now one of hundreds of native Arabic speakers in the US, many of them immigrants or refugees from Iraq, who have taken leading roles as battlefield thespians in readying American forces for the combat and cultural complexities of the Middle East.

"Sometimes we come to the gate and say, 'We have no food, no water, no medicine,' " says Saeed, who lives in Lexington, Ky. "I say, 'We are your neighbor, we need these things.' Sometimes the soldiers cooperate. Sometimes they say to leave, because they have shooting going on. Sometimes some of us are carrying AK-47s. But the soldiers don't know if we're friendly or if we're insurgents mixed in with the civilians and might start shooting."

•••

At Fort Bragg, Saeed is joined by 20 everyday Americans from the Fayetteville, N.C., area, who play the part of Iraqi civilians and insurgents. They have no special language skills, but, for about $12.50 an hour, are willing to work long hours outdoors, rain or shine, braving the discomforts of poison oak, fire ants, and ticks.

They answered an ad in a local newspaper placed by the private contractor Akem, a native American corporation based in Alaska that provides such training services to the US military. Applicants must be US citizens, cannot have felony records, and must pass a security background check and drug screening.

"We find most of our local role players through newspaper ads and usually get an overwhelming response," says Randy Ward, a recruiter for Akem. "Around 50 percent are veterans or otherwise connected to the military. If we have high enough demand, we'll also contact local employment offices and the local National Guard and Reserve to find more volunteers."

Dressed in Arabic headdresses and the traditional robes that the role players call "man dresses," they follow scenarios directed by Army trainers, based on situations that US troops are encountering in Iraq. Half of the role players act as Iraqi civilians, half as armed insurgents.

"Some days you're a sniper, some days you'll be a suicide bomber – everything that the Army trainers can think of to throw at them," says Carl Washington, resting in the shade of a pine tree while loading an AK-47 with blanks. "It's fun to do: When you were a kid, you played war in the woods. Now we're adults and playing the bad guys."

Like many of the role players at Fort Bragg, Mr. Washington is a former member of the military. He served with the XVIII Airborne Corps in the Balkans before leaving the Army in 2004 and starting a real estate career in Fayetteville.

"I decided that if this would help save one American life over there ... then it was worth doing," says Mike Hicks, a former Navy Corpsman who served with a Marine reconnaissance unit until a battlefield injury forced his retirement in 1991. "Believe me, I'm not doing it for the money."

Mr. Hicks recalls a recent nighttime training scenario in which he and other role players approached a transportation unit that was repairing a flat tire on a truck. Turned away when they asked for food and water, they were shot at by the soldiers when they tried to circle the convoy.

"A guy shot me in the stomach and we were friendly Iraqis," he says. "So we ended up telling them, 'You just turned some of us into a bunch of insurgents.' "

Role playing has long played a part in training US forces for deployment overseas. In 1941, the military staged massive maneuvers involving 500,000 soldiers in Louisiana in preparation for World War II. Local people played the part of civilians in dozens of towns that were "overrun" in the exercises. In the 1960s, Fort Polk, La., was the site of an advanced Army training center that used a mock Vietnamese village.

Yet civilian participation in exercises and the use of foreign language specialists has increased significantly since the US occupation of Iraq. Counterinsurgency training with civilian bit players is now carried out at numerous Army bases, including Camp Shelby in Mississippi, Fort Hood in Texas, Fort Riley in Kansas, and Fort Lewis in Washington State. Fort Polk regularly stages exercises that involve hundreds of "actors."

"These are immersion exercises with scenarios that involve dozens of Arabic-speaking people," says Dan Nance, a public affairs official at Fort Polk. "There's a great deal of realism involved. We also use people with amputated arms or legs to simulate those types of casualties in the aftermath of an IED [improvised explosive device]."

•••

As a woman, Iyleana Lopez added another dimension to the recent training of Army Reservists at Fort Bragg. Enduring a North Carolina summer while clad head to toe in a burqa, Ms. Lopez forced soldiers to consider their own cultural biases while negotiating strict Muslim gender codes. Carrying a doll, she had joined the sheikh's mob at the front gate, begging for baby food. In another scenario, she played a suicide bomber, with a small package labeled "C-4" hidden under her garments.

"Sometimes the soldiers get really stressed when I hide something, and they don't find it," says Lopez. "They can get really angry with me, but that's OK. I love to do this. I like helping people, and this is helping soldiers."

For Saeed, the job is a chance to do something for the US soldiers whose mission he embraces as well as for his own country. When Mr. Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, he was a soldier in the Iraqi Army stationed in his native Basra. He joined the rebellion against Hussein's rule. "We got fliers telling us to rise up, saying we would have support," he recalls, a revolution that collapsed within a month. Saeed's mother and two brothers were killed. "The Army came to my house looking for me and my other brothers, but they took them instead. We went to American forces, and they took us to Saudi camps."

Saeed spent six years there before immigrating to the US in 1997, settling in Lexington, Ky., where he worked in construction.

"I used to have a regular job, but when I heard the Army needs this kind of help, I wanted to do something," he says. "They go to help my country, so I have to do something for them."

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