"Food!" "Water!" A crowd of irate young men in T-shirts and baseball caps shouts at American soldiers patrolling a dusty street in one of the Army's new, eight-wheeled Strykers.
The protesters aren't Iraqis. They are GIs impersonating Iraqi civilians in a training exercise. They stage a violent confrontation between a shopkeeper and a looter trying to draw a reaction - but the US troops drive on by.
Watching this training unfold at Fort Lewis, Wash., Maj. Chuck Hodges takes note of a potentially serious mistake.
"They just drive in with no infantry on the ground [to protect the Stryker's flank] - it concerns me," he says. Moreover, the Stryker is alone, something that should never happen, he advises a lieutenant in charge.
For more than a year, Army officers such as Major Hodges have been writing the book on how to leverage the unprecedented concentration of infantrymen, firepower, speed, and information combined in the Army's first 3,600-strong Stryker Brigade Combat Team. Their goal: to push the envelope on ground warfare.
Soon, this new medium-armored force will face a trial by fire - a year-long deployment in the restive towns and hinterlands of Iraq. The brigade begins rolling out this week, with 1,000 vehicles now ready for loading onto Kuwait-bound ships at Tacoma.
Brigade officials say the details of their Iraq mission are not final. But in July, the acting Army chief of Staff, Gen. John Keane, said the brigade would overlap with and replace the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment in Anbar province.
Anbar, Iraq's biggest province, stretches from the Jordanian, Syrian, and Saudi Arabian borders east to Baghdad. It includes the cities of Ramadi and Falluja, where outbursts of anti-coalition violence have frequently flared.
"The brigade is designed to operate over extended distances and in urban areas. It can move tactically very rapidly," says Brig. Gen. John Gardner, who is overseeing the development at Fort Lewis of the first two of six planned Stryker brigades.
Still, rarely has a major armored combat system gone from the production line into a war zone so quickly. The first of the 19-ton, eight-wheeled Stryker vehicles arrived at Fort Lewis just 16 months ago in June 2002. On Sept. 17, the Pentagon sent a formal operational evaluation of the system to Congress, starting the clock on a 30-day waiting period before first Stryker brigade can deploy overseas.
Stryker's harshest critics have charged that the vehicles are dangerously flawed, with vulnerable wheels and inadequate armor that will make them deadly for troops riding inside.
The Army flatly rejects such assertions, though it continues to fix last-minute problems, such as repairing defective armor tiles. To block rocket-propelled grenades, the Army has added cage-like steel slats.
"They [Strykers] are not death traps," says Lt. Gen. Edward Soriano, commanding general at Fort Lewis. "Anyone who says that doesn't understand the organization," he says. "[The Strykers] will have good survivability."
Understanding the Stryker, Army officials stress, means first of all knowing what it is not: "It is not a fighting vehicle like a tank or a Bradley," says General Soriano.
Instead of rumbling into enemy territory like the army tank units that charged to Baghdad in April, the strategy of the more lightly armored Stryker brigades is to scope out opponents and sneak up on them at speeds of up to 60-miles per hour.
"The enemy will see the uniqueness of the Stryker brigade in the speed and stealth [by which] it gets to the fight," says Lt. Col. Rob Choppa. "It's not a Bradley or M1 [tank]...riding through the streets with the sound of road wheels and iron tracks. It's very quiet."
The nine-man infantry squad quickly dismounts, protecting the Stryker, while a two-man crew uses the Stryker's .50-cal iber machine gun or MK19 grenade launcher to support the foot soldiers.
One key to the Stryker's success is good intelligence, which top Pentagon and military officials admit is lacking in Iraq. Nevertheless, the Stryker brigade's intelligence assets are substantial. They include an array of sensors, unmanned aerial vehicles, and a military intelligence company - as well as a new satellite system that links every vehicle into a digital network.
In Iraq, the brigade could be attached to an Army division or operate more independently as a corps-level asset, says Colonel Choppa. Missions could range from raids and convoy escorts to providing security for key military or government nodes, says Choppa, deputy commander of the first Stryker brigade, the 3rd Brigade of the 2nd Infantry Division.
At Fort Lewis, the Stryker brigade has undergone intensive training in recent months, using "lessons learned" from Iraq to model the ambushes, roadside bombs, and civilian unrest its soldiers will probably face.
"A year's a long time, but if we're gonna go, we want to stop prolonging it," says Staff Sgt. Michael Robinson of the brigade's 1-23 battalion, after rehearsing an ambush.
Adding to the strain on troops is pressure to make the politically controversial Stryker a success. "We'll see when the actual live bullets start to fly - but I think it will exceed all expectations," says Choppa.