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Marine training aims to prepare for Iraqi warfare

NORFOLK - A group of about a dozen Marines wound through a makeshift village Monday afternoon, fighting cold wind and verbal lashings, delivered in Arabic.


By LOUIS HANSEN, The Virginian-Pilot
© February 28, 2006

A small Iraqi woman, draped in a robe and topcoat, approached one of the young troops. They stood in a courtyard bordered by two-story brick buildings by the water on Norfolk Naval Station.

The woman cradled a basket in one arm, and gestured up and down with her free hand. An interpreter explained that the woman wanted to know about food and medicine promised by the Americans.

The Marine said he knew nothing about the promises made by other troops. He apologized.

"We're here to help," he said.

He left puzzled but safe. He was being exposed to a bit of Iraqi culture before he gets a full immersion during his upcoming deployment.

For two weeks around Hampton Roads - mostly on bases, sometimes in communities - 2,200 troops from the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit will train for all aspects of urban warfare.

With troops patrolling and fighting in hard-won, door-to-door battles against insurgents, the Marine Corps is going to great lengths to replicate the stresses and strains of the Iraqi war.

The Marines identify and try to reduce the difficulties created by unfamiliar surroundings, said Col. Ronald Johnson, commanding officer of the unit. They have performed the exercise nearly 50 times, including in Richmond, Atlanta, Philadelphia and, most recently, Morgantown, W.Va.


Navy Seaman Apprentice Louis Jabari, who was cast to act as an Iraqi, confronts a Marine during the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit training exercise.

Marines (above and below) get practice dealing with Iraqis, played by actors. The 24th MEU is set to deploy to Iraq again in the coming months.


The exercises include simulated roadside bomb and grenade attacks.

"We try to get the blood pumping," Johnson said.

About 60 percent of the troops will be making at least a second deployment to Iraq. The unit deployed from July 2004 to February 2005, patrolling a zone south of Baghdad known as the "Triangle of Death." The 24th MEU expects to deploy next in the late spring or early summer.

Lt. Col. Joel Berry, commanding officer of MEU Service Support Group 24, said the high-tempo training prepares them for the fatigue of combat and multiple tours.

"By the time we deploy, we've experienced that," said Berry, a Virginia Beach native and graduate of First Colonial High School.

Lance Cpl. Greg Daniels joined the service two years ago, after graduating from Salem High School in Virginia Beach. Daniels and his unit aided survivors of Hurricane Katrina on the Gulf Coast. Daniels expects to make his first overseas tour to Iraq. He is ready, he said, for "anything that comes along."

The Marines have hired Iraqi immigrants to educate troops on how to approach religious groups and family leaders in Iraq. On Thursday , about a dozen Iraqis played roles ranging from sheik to security force member to angry villager.

Wael Saadoun, 23, immigrated to the United States in 2003. After going to school to study computer networking, he joined a private contractor and has traveled across the country to train U.S. troops.

Saadoun, who speaks nearly fluent English, wants U.S. troops to remain in Iraq. If the Americans leave, he said, "the next second, not day, the terrorists will control Iraq."

On Monday, Saadoun played a security guard and translator helping U.S. troops navigate and understand villagers during patrol.

The troops learned about winning hearts as well as fire fights. Sgt. Michael Simon watched the patrols as they worked through their training.

He huddled the platoon for a quick lesson about approaching a friendly village.

"They want your help," Simon explained. He advised the Marines to stop and spend time with the residents. "It shows them that you care."

Reach Louis Hansen at (757) 446-2322 or louis.hansen@pilotonline.com.