Army units in Iraq modify what they learned in MOUT training
August 8, 2003
BAGHDAD, Iraq — Military operations in urban terrain, or MOUT, as the acronym-happy Army calls it, has received an increasing share of official attention since the mission to Somalia in the early 1990s.
Yet although more Army units are spending time on such training, the urban missions many Army units are undertaking in Iraq — patrols, raids, manning checkpoints — are different from the combat focus of those exercises.
The “MOUT villages” that are increasingly found on Army posts and in places such as the joint training center at Fort Polk, La., are almost always built using Western-style architecture and layouts.
And as in Iraq, civilians are not merely an occasional presence, as urban terrain training often depicts civilians. Instead, interactions with civilians often comprise the entire mission.
Because the Army gives its unit leaders wide latitude to execute missions as they see fit, units in Iraq are handling their urban terrain operations in different ways.
Some units follow official doctrine almost to the letter.
But others, such as the 1st Armored Division’s 2-37th Armor Scout Platoon, based in Friedberg, Germany, are developing modifications based on their experiences here, both good and bad.
The “Iron Dukes” platoon quickly discovered the differences between its training and its actual situation in Iraq.
“We learned [urban operations] for a high-intensity conflict situation,” said Staff Sgt. Keith Norris, one of the scout’s noncommissioned officers. “Here, you obviously can’t go in and toss a hand grenade into every room.”
Some of the modifications that Iron Dukes platoon leader Lt. Lucas Hale from Pendleton, Ind., and his scouts are developing are minor; others almost revolutionary.
Change in mission
When Hale took command of the platoon in Germany last August, the scouts knew they would probably go to war.
“We figured, that close to the conflict, that we’d be going,” Hale said.
Urban terrain operations, however, are not traditionally part of the scouts’ mission. “We’re the guys who sneak behind enemy lines and dig holes and sit and watch for hours and hours and then sneak back,” Norris said.
But Hale decided to add the urban terrain training to the long list of predeployment activities, and he tapped Norris to lead the other NCOs in teaching it.
With Army experts and pundits widely predicting that the battle for Baghdad would be the largest urban firefight since World War II, “all our MOUT training was combat-related,” Hale said.
When the scouts got to Baghdad in May, where they were attached to the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment, major combat was over. Instead of reconnaissance and other scoutlike duties, the “Iron Dukes” found themselves with a new mission: peacekeeping.
Their missions here include escort duty, security patrols and, occasionally, raids on suspected arms dealers, former Baath regime officials and other troublemakers.
The scouts’ first inkling that their urban terrain training might need some modifications occurred during their first major raid, in July.
The target was a high-ranking officer with Saddam Hussein’s commandos, or Fedayeen.
“We were told [it] would be dynamic-entry, or what you would call ‘kick in the door,’” Norris said.
But before the mission, officials in the task force changed their minds about the initial level of force. Instead, the scouts were told to conduct the raid in a manner that would minimize the possibility of a firefight, Norris said.
“So the LT [Hale] came up with what he calls ‘the yackety-yak’ thing,” which involves giving everyone in the target house a five-minute warning to come out peacefully, Norris said.
The idea, Hale said, is to separate as many innocent civilians from dangerous targets as possible. At the end of those five minutes, “the only people we’ll find left in the house are threats,” Hale said.
The drawback, Hale said, “is that we lose surprise, and surprise is one of the things that will increase your chances of success and survival.”
When Norris first learned of Hale’s “five-minute” plan, “it scared the [heck] out of me,” he said. “But it probably kept me from getting shot.”
The first thing the scouts saw as they went in the front door was a sleeping pallet for four people, lying against the wall and next to the door they had originally planned to breech with high explosives.
And resting on that pallet, in plain sight, was a loaded 9 mm pistol.
If the soldiers had blown the front door, one of two things might have happened, Norris believes: sleeping civilians would have been killed or wounded; or a survivor would have had time to pick up the weapon and shoot the first man in the door.
‘A security nightmare’
The scouts found other surprises on that first raid.
From the perspective of a soldier faced with clearing an Iraqi house, “the minute you walk in, you’re automatically facing a security nightmare,” Norris said.
The reason for that nightmare is architecture: “The houses out here are not set up the way we expected, which was separate rooms with hallways to connect them,” Hale said.
The mock-ups the Army uses at urban terrain training sites mimic an American or European house, “which, when you enter the front door, you’ll have either a staircase or a hall,” said 1st Lt. Greg Lee from Gaithersburg, Md.
But in the Middle East, including Iraq, “you immediately enter into a main room, which may have as many as four doorways leading to other rooms,” said Lee, who was scheduled to take the scout platoon from Hale on Thursday.
Normal MOUT doctrine calls for the most senior soldier in a four-man room-clearing team to be the third man to enter the room.
The reason, Lee explained, is because “the first man in the room is the most likely to catch a bullet in the chest.”
If that person is the team leader, the soldier behind him might naturally hesitate — and almost surely die as well. But because the rooms here are such labyrinths, the scouts have decided they need an experienced leader in first, not third, Norris said.
“You are required here to exercise so much more judgment and restraint that we put a decision-maker in the room first,” Norris said.
Target houses in Iraq’s major cities have other characteristics that make it tough for raiding soldiers.
Civilians on battlefield
Architecture aside, there is another enormous difference between MOUT training and Iraq for the scouts: the hordes of Iraqis, both observers and participants, who are part of every operation.
Normal MOUT training teaches soldiers “to always assume civilians will be ‘present on the battlefield,’” Norris said. “But in this case, you have to assume that almost everybody is a civilian.”
It hasn’t been an easy adjustment for the scouts.
“Our mentality as soldiers is combat,” Hale said. “We don’t deal with civilians well as a whole. But in Iraq, you have to understand that 99 percent of the people [we encounter] are simple people who just want to get on with their lives. Most of them are innocent.”