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Last Updated: Thursday, 19 July 2007, 15:10 GMT 16:10 UK
Coaching US troops on Iraqi culture
US officials say the military is transforming to meet the changing face of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. BBC Arabic's Roula Ayoubi reports on a new "cultural training" programme to improve US soldiers' skills in dealing with local people.

An armoured vehicle in a mock Iraqi town at a US military training facility (picture courtesy of the US military)
The US military has built two "Iraqi towns" in a California desert

"Assalamu alaykum, Ahlan wa sahlan, welcome." With these words, Iraqi sheikhs greet a group of marines in a narrow room at the beginning of a training session.

The class is part of "Mojave Viper", a new pre-deployment cultural training course established to prepare US forces for what the military calls "irregular warfare" in Iraq.

The meeting starts with a prayer suggested by the group's Iraqi interpreter, who wears a marine uniform.

"No matter where we are, in Wadi Sahara or in Khalidiya, we are working as one for the good of this city, and as long as we are one, we will get the best results, Insha'allah," says the "mayor" of Wadi Sahara, addressing the marines.

Despite what the blue-domed mosque nearby suggests, the training is not taking place in Iraq but rather in Wadi Sahara and Khalidiya, two fictional Iraqi towns built in the middle of the Mojave desert, in California, as part of a $23m project.

The Iraqi "sheikhs" are mostly Iraqis recruited as role players.

Marines' challenge

The Centre for Advanced Operational Culture Training is the new military body specialised in "improving marines' cultural skills and foreign language abilities".

Barack Salmoni, deputy director of the centre, says the focus reflects a 2006 military assessment that "developing broader linguistic capability and cultural understanding is critical to prevail in the long war and to meet 21st century challenges".

During the six- to eight-week course, the marines learn about 200 basic words in Arabic - enough to allow them to deal with local people on the ground in Iraq.

Choosing his words carefully, the marine commander in the training session tries to explain the difficulties US forces face in building trust.

We noticed that we had the military tactics but lacked the knowledge of Iraqi laws and traditions so we needed to learn about them all
Barack Salmoni
Centre for Advanced Operational Culture Training

"While my marines are dedicated in working with the Iraqi army and police to eliminate the threat from insurgents, we know that the enemy insurgents hide among the people and that the people are not our enemy," he says.

And, of course, the problem goes both ways.

"The local population is becoming intimidated because they don't know who to trust," reserve army commander Lieutenant General Jack Stultz says.

In 2003, on the eve of the Iraq war, the administration of US President George W Bush excluded "nation building" in Iraq and Afghanistan from its plans.

But, Mr Salmoni says, the US military became aware of the need to give the troops' mission in Iraq "civil and cultural dimensions" when the Bush administration decided to establish a new Iraqi government.

US military in a mock Iraqi town at a California training facility (picture courtesy of the US military)
The US military is trying to teach troops how to build trust with Iraqis

"We noticed that we had the military tactics but lacked the knowledge of Iraqi laws and traditions so we needed to learn about them all. I am afraid we didn't anticipate all these bifurcations."

Since January, newly established PRTs (Provincial Reconstruction Teams) have increased their operations in Iraqi cities.

The military is becoming more involved in "civil affairs", which entails helping to build local infrastructure.

And this, says Lt Gen Stultz, means "the Reserve Army, like the army, is in transformation".

He believes that the civil affairs teams "can do more to build the trust" with the population.

The reservists are the main force in the civil affairs teams in Iraq. And according to the Pentagon, only 260 soldiers out of some 200,000 in the Army Reserve speak Arabic.

Nonetheless, says Lt Gen Stultz, "if a person has a specific language skill that's a plus for us, but I'm not focused on recruiting Arabic speakers".

'Not only warriors'

Marines start their career in a Marine Corps base in Quantico, Virginia. There, I met Frank Mease, now a major in the marines.

He did the culture training before deploying to Iraq last year. He says that it "was preparing us to be able to execute our duties professionally and work with the Iraqis and with the local population.

"Our mission overall is to provide a secure situation to the Iraqi security forces to take over and to the Iraqi government to stabilise itself."

A marine takes part in a training exercise in Quantico, Virginia
Marines must take the cultural training course before going to Iraq

Mr Salmoni acknowledges that the perspective on the military's role has changed.

There was a "misunderstanding when the Americans first arrived in Iraq," he says. The assumption was that their mission was "purely military".

But after the soldiers started this kind of training "the relationship with Iraqis got better," he says.

"There is a fundamental shift in what it means to be a marine. We are not only warriors any more, we are teachers, we are builders, we are doctors and engineers."

Cultural sensibilities

As the insurgency in Iraq has grown, raids on houses and mosques have become a daily event for the US military in Iraq.

These operations are performed mainly by the marines, who are required to undertake the cultural training programme if they are to be deployed to Iraq.

US soldiers and an Iraqi woman in Baghdad (file picture)
Soldiers are coached on dealing with questions on women and Islam

Joe Harris, the training centre's Arabic teacher, describes the main topics covered on the course as "religion, the importance of mosques to Muslims, the importance of family values, and how to treat men in front of their families and tribes, and how to conduct searches in houses and mosques".

Mr Harris, an American of Moroccan origin, is a former marine himself.

He considers Islam and the treatment of women to be particularly delicate subjects in Iraq - and has coached soldiers on how to deal with them sensitively.

When one marine major was asked in a cultural training session by one of the "tribesmen" if his battalion had any Muslims, he respectfully answered that eight of his soldiers were Muslim and that he was ready to introduce them to the tribesmen.

The second sensitive question he received was from another tribesman asking how many wives he had.

He cautiously answered: "I have only one... only one wife and we have five beautiful children together, but what I admire about Arab men is that they are able to marry four women and satisfy them all... I consider one wife a full-time job!"

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