How do you say "win the hearts and minds" in Arabic? Not many US soldiers in Iraq would know the answer and combat troops turned peacekeepers face an almost insurmountable language barrier as they seek cooperation from local civilians.
"Open al baaab," shouts the soldier, using the Arabic word for "door" as he and his unit from the Tikrit-based Fourth Infantry Division comb Saddam Hussein's hometown following a drive-by shooting which left one of their number wounded.
"Thank you," sputters the perplexed Tikriti, his family huddled around him in fear, as he fails to understand that the troops want to search a backroom in his shop.
Very few Iraqis in this impoverished town and its neighboring villages speak any English, and probably fewer US troops have any knowledge of Arabic.
And when the handful of soldiers who do painstakingly utter a sentence in textbook classical Arabic, the result is so far removed from the local dialect that it simply leaves their Iraqi interlocutors mystified.
Linguistic skills were not vital when the US army's goal was still to conquer the country, crush any resistance and hunt down Saddam and his regime.
But 10 months after the war began, the US military faces only sporadic guerrilla attacks and is gradually dropping the stick and using the carrot, shifting its activities to civilian tasks such as repairing infrastructure and providing jobs.
And this is where language hampers US efforts to tear down the wall of distrust.
Lieutenant Colonel Steve Russell, who heads the 1-22 battalion, recalls an incident which prompted a military investigation when the local Iraqi police chief complained one of his officers had been assaulted by a US soldier ordering him at gunpoint to fetch some "whisky."
It turned out that the Iraqi's poor command of English led him to misunderstand calls by the soldier to leave a combat area because it was too "risky."
"Where was the translator who could have solved all that?" asks Russell.
"I think the military used all the means that they could, but there is certainly a need for American Arabic speakers," he adds.
His battalion, a leading force in the American operation in Iraq known as the "digital battalion," counts close to 400 seasoned soldiers but only three trained Arabic speakers.
The army relies on local Iraqis with some knowledge of English to coordinate non-military activities on and off the base, as well as professional translators hired from the US.
But they only have clearance to deal with the least sensitive issues and cannot follow the troops everywhere due to their lack of military training.
In late 2002, the US Department of Defense produced a set of booklets and CDs entitled "Iraqi Basic-Language Survival Guide." The first three phrases are "Stop, Stop or I will shoot, Follow our orders."
"A lot of people didn't actually use them anyway," says Sergeant Ervin Willis, one of a handful of trained Arabic speakers based with the 4th ID in the ousted Iraqi leader's opulent riverside palace complex.
Willis reckons that the US defense has not done enough to adapt to the new linguistic challenges rising from its current "war on terror" which covers military activity spanning almost the entire Arab world, large swathes of Asia and East Africa.
"A long time after the end of the Cold War, the Army correspondence course institute still only has Russian, Czech and Polish language courses ... and there is a real shortage of Arabic speakers," he explains.
He nevertheless argues that a lot can be achieved towards winning the confidence of the Iraqis by adopting an attitude respectful of local customs.
"For soldiers trained to engage people with arms and not conversation, it's difficult to step into the peacekeeping role. It's impossible to use the gun to achieve all the army's goals," Willis says.
"But you can already get pretty far if you make an effort to immerse yourself in the culture."
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