In the backwoods of Louisiana, 4,500 National Guardsmen contend with mortar attacks, road bombs, and ambushes in a mock Iraqi province with hundreds of Arabic-speaking role players.
It's an eye-opening rehearsal for the 30th Brigade of the National Guard, which hasn't been called into combat since 1944. Many of its soldiers have never been abroad.
This month, the North Carolina unit will ship out to Iraq's "Sunni triangle" as part of the biggest US troop movement since World War II. The rotation - by May replacing the bulk of US servicemembers now in Iraq - comes with risks as well as opportunities. Fresh units like the 30th Brigade will take over from more seasoned US forces to try to quell a shifting insurgency and prevent political turmoil as Iraq nears a June 30 deadline for self-rule.
Between a rise in nationalism and more frequent terrorist attacks on Iraqi security forces and civilians, the job of policing Iraq is growing increasingly complex for newly dispatched soldiers. Perhaps most crucial, relationships forged over months with local Iraqi officials, tribal chiefs, and religious leaders cannot be duplicated overnight.
"We're very, very sensitive to the fact that the great progress we've made has an awful lot to do with the understanding and relationships we've established at the local level," Gen. Peter Schoomaker, the Army chief of staff, told a House Armed Services Committee hearing last week.
A vast influx of forces to Iraq and Kuwait will peak in March, raising to 220,000 the number of US troops there and temporarily doubling the size of the American military "footprint." As a result, US commanders "will have a very, very large force in there and a very capable force," which they will leverage to "keep the pressure on the enemy," says a senior Army official.
But the surge in troops means more targets, and large movements themselves are often dangerous. Over four months, 14 brigades will overlap with and replace 17 brigades as the number of divisions drops from four to three. The projected total force of 110,000 will consist of 80,000 soldiers, 25,000 marines, and 5,000 Air Force and Navy ground personnel such as truck drivers and engineers.
Even with a smooth "battle handoff," incoming troops will lack the firsthand political experience vital to navigating Iraq's escalating factional conflicts. Sunnis and Shiites, Kurds and Arabs are vying for resources and power. Iraqi-on-Iraqi violence is on the rise. Insurgents are appealing to nationalism or radical Islam as rallying points rather than loyalty to Saddam Hussein.
"The hard part is the ... personal relationships that you build with the leaders. That will always take some time," says Maj. Gen. Raymond Odierno, commander of the Army's Fourth Infantry Division. The lack of established relations will have "an impact" as new US forces help set up an Iraqi government, he said. Based in Tikrit, General Odierno's division patrols the Sunni triangle and will be replaced beginning next month by the First Infantry Division from Germany and the 30th brigade. For months, the units have been sharing information to ease the transition.
In the triangle, where 80 percent of attacks on US forces take place, Odierno says his troops have succeeded recently in breaking up cells of regime loyalists. Only a handful of cells remain, he says, compared with 15 to 20 before Mr. Hussein's capture on Dec. 13. But he warns that "the threat is moving toward somewhat of a nationalistic threat" as religious and ethnic factions jockey for position in a future Iraqi government. Such infighting is evidenced by a steady rise in attacks on Iraqi police and officials. Meanwhile, terrorist strikes on Iraqi civilians, which some military officials attribute to radical Islamic groups, have multiplied.
Both trends suggest a war zone riddled with new political complexities for soldiers headed to Iraq.
Here in the US, the 30th brigade is soaking up as many lessons from Iraq as it can. This month at Fort Polk, La., they patrolled in a town with Arabic signs and native speakers. There were mock mortar attacks from insurgents and meetings with local imams and police chiefs.
Like other Army and Marine forces deploying to Iraq, the 30th Brigade has tailored its equipment and organization for the conflict. A heavy armored unit, its soldiers have drawn the latest gear designed for airborne troops at a cost of $3,000 per soldier: new kevlar vests, kneepads, and Infrared laser sights. Meanwhile, its four-man tank and howitzer crews have switched to Humvees. Overall, units headed to Iraq are lighter and more maneuverable, with fewer tanks, Bradley Fighting Vehicles, and artillery pieces, and more
Humvees."Initially it was a little weird, a little quirky" for tankers to train as motorized infantry, says Capt. Matt Handley, a brigade spokesman. "But the comfort level has come up." As protection against explosive devices, the Army is adding armor to hundreds of vehicles in Iraq. Ingoing brigades will also have greater reconnaissance capabilities, including unmanned aerial surveillance drones.
Army and Marine reservists will make up nearly half of the new rotation, compared with about one third of the force currently in Iraq. As a result, training has intensified between reserve and active-duty units assigned to serve together. The 30th Brigade and 1st Infantry Division have held staff-level exercises in Germany, for example, to test communications and tactical operations.
After a farewell ceremony at Fort Bragg in mid-February, soldiers from the Clinton, N.C.-based brigade will fly to Kuwait to pick up equipment. Once in Iraq, they will spend two or three weeks learning the ropes with the 4th Infantry Division on joint missions called "right seat rides."
American commanders in Iraq will use the temporary influx of forces to maximize combat power, according to the senior Army official. "These right seat rides are ... not just dry runs, these are not scrimmages, they are full-up operations," he says.
Although the rotation as planned will eventually reduce the total US force by about 15,000, many of these will come from logistics units whose services have been contracted out, while others will come from headquarters, according to military officials. Overall combat capabilities will stay the same or increase, they say.