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US Troops Learn about Iraqi Culture Ahead of Deployment


As U.S. soldiers prepare for deployment in Iraq they undergo a variety of intensive training programs, most of them related to weapons, tactics, command and control procedures, and other military topics. But these days they are also receiving cultural training to prepare them to operate in an environment very different from the United States.

Sergeant First Class Kenny Wildes stands in a cavernous building addressing more than 100 soldiers on the basics of Islam. "The first pillar is called the Shihadith, that means 'I recognize Allah as being the true and only God,'" he explains. "Their prayer, which is done five times a day - you'll see them out there. You have to allow them to pray."

It is hot, and the lights are low to make it easier to see the sergeant's slides. "When they go out there and they pray, they will face Mecca, get down on their knees and do their prayers," he continues. "Allow them to do that. Do not cause a personal conflict by defacing their religion and not allowing them to pray."

Sergeant Wildes also admonishes the troops not to eat in public during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, when Muslims fast during daylight hours; and he instructs them on the need to show proper respect for Muslim women.

After a while, the sergeant notices that with the heat and low lights, and late afternoon hour, he is losing his audience. He calls a break. "During the Cultural Awareness briefing I try to get my point across that their culture is just different than ours," he explains. "And by interacting with the Iraqi people - which they are good people, we have extremists everywhere - by interacting with them it might help them in the long run."

Sergeant Wildes tells the trainees it is important to respect Iraqi culture and religious practices, and also that Iraqis who feel that the foreign troops respect them might be more willing to provide information about the insurgency, and that could save American lives.

Some of the soldiers have been to Iraq before, but for most it will be their first deployment. Many of them say the cultural training is useful, including 21-year-old Sergeant Amy Wagner. "It was good training," she said. "We got a lot of information that we needed. A lot of people do not know or understand the religion that is over there."

Sergeant Wagner is a mechanic, trained to service military vehicles. She is one of the few women in this group heading for a new culture in a combat zone in a few weeks. She has special concerns as she listens to the cultural training.

"Well, as far as being a female, just the way that they perceive females and the things you can and cannot do as far as hand signals and body language," she says. "[I need to] watch the things that I say and do and try and keep my distance from the males over there."

But the cultural awareness training goes beyond this one lecture. It is incorporated into many elements of this training program, called "Theater Immersion."

Sergeant First Class Eric Nicholson shows another group of soldiers how to conduct a body search. "Now you want to do the toe. Make sure he does not have a false sole on his shoe," he says. "You cleared it? Is it clear? OK. You have him bend down and grab it with his hand, and pull that shoe up. All right. Now I'm going to do it, same thing. OK. Same thing on this side. Clear? All right. We are going to stay on this side and we are going to get the heel on this shoe."

Sergeant Nicholson is searching an Iraqi man dressed in traditional Iraqi clothes. The man, who moved to the United States more than 10 years ago, wants to be identified only as Ahmed to protect his family back in Iraq. He is one of more than 50 Iraqis and other Arabs who help train the American soldiers at Camp Shelby.

"That is our duty as American Iraqis," says Ahmed. "I mean, these soldiers need to be trained, and we just try and do our best to make it as realistic as possible, trying to avoid a lot of casualties. It is not just a way of income. It is not a job. It is a duty for all of us. That is what I feel personally about it."

Ahmed and the other Arab trainers repeatedly get searched, stage mock demonstrations, have their fake houses raided and set off phony roadside bombs. They help provide a realistic environment for the soldiers, and they also provide some cultural training in classes and through informal conversations during breaks and at mealtimes.

"I am trying to do my best over here just to explain to the soldiers how is the situation over there, how to deal with the Iraqi people and give them some kind of culture and language classes," says Ahmed. "And let them know how is the culture over there, what they are supposed to do, what they are not supposed to do."

Some of the Arab trainers are women, who focus on helping the soldiers learn how to deal with Muslim women - no touching, respectful tone, never alone. One of the women fled Iraq four years ago, during the rule of Saddam Hussein. She wants to be identified only as Zuhur.

Zuhur says she is helping both the Americans and the Iraqi people by being a part of this training. She says she wants to help the soldiers stay alive, and also to help Iraqi women, including potentially members of her own family, by ensuring that they are treated properly by the U.S. troops.

One of the senior training officers at Camp Shelby, Lieutenant Colonel Bill Wolfarth, says the Arab trainers are an important part of the 'immersion' the army provides the trainees who are heading for Iraq. "The training that they go through here, the scenarios that they face, as well as the use of civilians on the battlefield, is all designed to immerse them in a theater of operation that they will soon deploy to," he explains.

The cultural training and Arab civilians, combined with live-fire exercises and random attacks by simulated snipers and roadside bombs, are designed to make Mississippi seem as much like Iraq as possible. The hope is that once the soldiers learn how to survive here, they'll have a better chance of surviving where the bullets and the bombs are real.

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