Deploying troops focus on cultural training

By: MARK WALKER - Staff Writer
Marines and sailors learn Iraqi customs

CAMP PENDLETON -- Most days, Marines train to destroy. On Tuesday, they were learning how to build bridges in Iraq by studying the Mesopotamian nation's cultural mores and Arabic dialect.

"Having someone in the unit who can speak Arabic is like having another battalion," said Capt. Dave Meadows, a veteran of previous deployments to the volatile Anbar province west of Baghdad.

Meadows and an estimated 11,000 local Marines and sailors with the I Marine Expeditionary Force Headquarters Group and Regimental Combat Teams 1 and 5 are headed to Anbar later this year.

Crash courses in Arabic and understanding the Iraqi culture could be as critical a piece of equipment as the M-16 rifle, according to Marine officials.

"The people will be very happy if you speak a little Iraqi Arabic," said Ali Melsen, a former Iraqi air force pilot recruited by the Marines shortly after the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003. "If you know the names of the tribes in Iraq, they will be shocked."

Melsen was leading a group of 20 Marines in the basics of the Arabic language and numbering system, promising that if they were unable to recite one through 10 in the Iraqi dialect by memory on Tuesday, he would "send them to their leaders to be replaced by someone who wants to learn."

One of the Marines who said he was anxious to master the 200 words and phrases and numerals being taught this week was Lance Cpl. Filadelpho Rodriguez, who said the knowledge could prove invaluable on his second tour in Iraq.

"The biggest barrier my first time was the communication gap," the native of Woodville in Tulare County said. "A lot of the Marines during my first deployment never understood the culture that much."

By learning cultural cues and basic language skills, Melsen said the Marines will find ordinary Iraqis more approachable and more likely to tell them where anti-U.S. fighters and weapons caches can be found.

Since its inception in 2005, the course's instructors have taught more than 50,000 Marines how to ask basic questions, such as "How are you?" The course also includes lessons on how to say "we always have pleasant meetings" and "God be with you."

They also learn the proper etiquette associated with meeting an Iraqi for the first time, explaining a mission, easing tension and being proper guests in Iraqi homes.

The course was developed at the Center for Advanced Operational Culture Learning in Quantico, Va. Troops who take it are sent materials about a month ahead of the one-week classroom session. They are expected to keep practicing their skills in the weeks following the class and when they are in Iraq.

Camp Pendleton's Lt. Gen. James Mattis, head of the I Marine Expeditionary Force and commander of Marine Corps forces in the Middle East, helped establish the lesson plans prior to taking the local command.

The troops were taught that it is Iraqi custom to hold the hand of a person one is speaking with, and to talk quickly and with great emotion in times of stress.

"We teach the Marines how to slow them down so they're able to communicate and not just see someone approaching them that way as a threat," instructor Joseph Harris said.

A potentially lifesaving instruction is learning how to ask where to find a qunbule, Arabic for bomb or grenade. Such explosives are the No. 1 killer of Marines in Anbar.

Melsen said his goals extend far beyond helping the troops communicate. He hopes an end to the conflict will allow him to bring his wife and 11-year-old son out of hiding in Baghdad to live with him at his Virginia home, he said.

"We had been waiting for a miracle since the first Iraq war," he said. "We got that miracle, and now, I want to achieve peace as soon as possible so there will be a bright future for my son."

-- Contact staff writer Mark Walker at (760) 740-3529 or