By Alison Baily
The British military is teaching Arabic to a growing number of its troops as part of its battle for Iraqi hearts and minds. The army sees Arabic-speaking soldiers as an important asset in its bid to build trust with local Iraqis.
A little local language can go a long way in Iraq
With 8,500 UK personnel deployed in Iraq, the armed forces have found themselves in urgent need of Arabic-capable servicemen for field patrols, military liaison and intelligence work.
But the military is having a tough time trying to meet this demand. Arabic is hard to learn, and finding soldiers who are fluent can be even harder.
The number of troops learning Arabic has increased three fold since preparations for the Iraq war began in 2003.
Many British soldiers learn Arabic at the Defence School of Languages in Buckinghamshire, southern England, before heading out to Iraq. Some soldiers come to the school for one week to learn basic greetings and phrases. Others spend over a year here, training to become interpreters, often for intelligence purposes.
Sixty people study Arabic at present there, and this number is expected to rise to 80 in the coming months.
Learning about Arabic and Islamic culture is an important part of the training. The school takes students on visits to mosques and Arab restaurants in London, and organises study trips to Arab countries like Jordan and Oman.
According to Lt Col Anthony Rabbit, commanding officer at the Defence School of Languages, Arabic-speaking troops can play a key role in preventing Iraqis siding with the militants.
"The Arabic-speaking soldiers are there to win the confidence of the local population. Their role is to build up their trust to ensure that the insurgents are working on their own rather than with the cooperation of the local population," Lt Col Rabbit says.
Understanding the local culture has become key to the multinational operations in Iraq. Arab and Islamic culture is completely new to many of the soldiers stationed there, and a lack of respect for these sensitivities - inadvertent or otherwise - can cause deep offence.
House searches, for example, have provoked anger among Iraqis, many of whom see the searches as violating the sanctity of their homes. And any contact between women and male strangers can be seen as a slight on a family's honour.
On a visit to the school, I met students who were training to be interpreters in Iraq. They had been studying hard for six months and were able to talk to me in basic Arabic.
But these soldiers have at least another nine months of learning in front of them before they are ready to interpret on the ground in Iraq.
Meanwhile, the Ministry of Defence has had to turn elsewhere to combat its immediate shortage of Arabic translators.
Last year it launched a drive to recruit students studying Arabic at British universities and several were sent as civilian translators to work alongside British forces in southern Iraq.