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Last Updated: Sunday, 19 February 2006, 11:45 GMT
US troops taught Iraqi gestures
By Paul Rincon
BBC News science reporter, St Louis

Iraqi being stopped by a US Marine
The new training tool aims to end confusing, dangerous situations
The US military has funded a computer game to teach its troops how to use and decipher Iraqi body language.

The purpose is to teach soldiers that using the wrong gestures can potentially cause offence and escalate already tense situations.

In the program, users must build trust with local people through verbal communication and gestures.

One of the system's creators says the training tool, known as Tactical Iraqi, has already been a great success.

Hannes Vilhjalmsson, a research scientist at the University of Southern California, gave details of the Tactical Iraqi at a conference in St Louis, US.

The system also gives troops Arabic language skills.

Cultural differences

The program teaches military personnel some key gestures such as an up-down movement with the right hand to ask someone to slow down and gives them tips such as removing mirror sunglasses when approaching local people.

In western countries, we control our body language more. In Arabic culture, it is important you show how open you are
Dr Hannes Vilhjalmsson
University of Southern California
"In Iraq, to show sincerity you have to put more effort into your gestures," said Dr Vilhjalmsson.

"In Western countries, we control our body language more. In Arabic culture, it is important you show how open you are."

He added that reserved body language in exchanges with local people could be interpreted as having something to hide in Iraq, potentially escalating a tense situation.

Military personnel also learn that people can approach each other more closely than one normally might in the West.

Dr Vilhjalmsson said it was important troops should not automatically interpret close proximity in an exchange as a threat.

And the game teaches them that pointing the finger at a person can be considered aggressive in Arab cultures.

Regional variation

Tactical Iraqi is built on top of the game engine for Unreal Tournament, a first-person computer "shoot-em-up". In the training tool, though, subjects use communication to resolve situations.

Dr Vilhjalmsson said initial testing of Tactical Iraqi with marines deployed to Iraq had shown the programme to be very effective.

The University of Southern California is also working on other versions of the game: Tactical Pashto, which trains troops in communication specific to Afghanistan; and Tactical Levantine, which teaches them Arabic language and gestures specific to Lebanon and other surrounding areas.

The training system has been funded by the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa).

Dr Vilhjalmsson was speaking at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting in St Louis, US.

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