Source AP ©

Afghan and Iraqi immigrants take part in military training exercises in Kansas

Actors in this traveling troupe do not need a script to play.

They are playing their countrymen back in Iraq or Afghanistan in an elaborate simulation designed to teach American soldiers how to deal with a sometimes-hostile civilian population.

In one of the training sessions, a group of actors including many Afghan and Iraqi immigrants crowds around a dozen soldiers in a mock village.

"Leave us alone," they shout in Dari, an Afghan dialect. "We're not the enemy."

The U.S. troops being jostled are training to be advisers who will help teach Iraqi and Afghan forces to be independent. The military believes reproducing the culture - and emotions - advisers will face is essential.

The mock meetings require a handful of native speakers to play mayors or village leaders who will speak through a translator.

"You're not talking about someone walking in off the street," said Otto Nadal, who supervises the native-speaking actors for defense conglomerate L-3 Communications Holdings Inc. in Virginia.

"These are people who are already steeped in the culture. These are great Americans coming out to help get our soldiers prepared."

Up to 85 role players gather six days a week at Fort Riley. Some hope the job leads to a position in diplomacy or military support services. Others say they are working to prevent misunderstandings and violence between troops and their Iraqi and Afghan countrymen.

The Afghan and Iraqi immigrants travel around the country conducting training sessions. But the actors also include local residents, among them former soldiers like Lee Anderson, who left the Army in 2000 and now enjoys taking a break from his work renting and moving mobile homes.

For $17 (11.95 EUR) an hour, he portrays a resident of an Afghan neighborhood where the troops are supposed to be looking for a suspected Taliban fighter. During the performances, he wears a traditional white Arabic smock over his blue jeans, T-shirt and work boots.

"It's pretty fun," he said. "You get to mess with soldiers. And it's pretty good pay."

The exercises are held in makeshift villages constructed on the rolling Kansas prairie. Large shipping containers have been modified to resemble homes, shops and even a mosque. Inside, the actors have couches, chairs and tables.

Military trainers give the soldiers specific tasks, such as controlling crowds, searching buildings, securing the perimeter or arresting terrorists. Role players are told what the soldiers are doing and how they should react.

Cultural awareness is the goal of each phase. For example, advisers learn that chewing tobacco or placing their hat on the ground are disrespectful acts that can spoil an otherwise promising meeting.

"We make the training here much more difficult than almost anything they would deal with" in combat. "That way, when they arrive, that experience will be much easier for them," said Col. Jeff Ingram, who oversees the 60-day training program.

Role players relish the chance to teach their own lessons.

"If we see that they are messing up, I will start picking on them to make them work harder," Anderson said.

The native speakers are motivated by a belief that if they do their jobs well, the lives of people in Iraq and Afghanistan could be saved.

Abdulsalam Mulla views the role playing as the best job he has ever had, and he has bonded with the soldiers he's training.

A 29-year-old native of Iraq's Kurdish region, Mulla came to Fort Riley from Salt Lake City, where he was studying political science and working in customer support for a satellite TV company. When the training schedule allows, he will go back to Utah to continue his education.

For now, he's living at Fort Riley near the advisers, interacting with them at meals and around the compound.

"Right now, I appreciate their efforts, from the bottom of my heart. I really do. I want to see them all back safely," he said. "And I would do anything to be part of that. Most of my friends are soldiers."

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