EDINBURGH, Ind. – As American soldiers attempted to tow a Humvee hit by a fake roadside bomb, Saleh Thanon, an Iraqi national, taunted them with insults.
"Criminal, get out of my country!" Thanon yelled in Arabic, heckling the troops in a mock Iraqi village. "I don't want you in my country. You're killing people."
Harsh words for someone who professes to love America, but Thanon is just doing his job. He's training troops for Iraq (search), and he wants them to be ready.
The Army has been using Iraqi nationals to help troops develop language and cultural skills since the invasion of that country in March 2003. They are among about 1,000 Arabic speakers the Army uses for training, said Bob Close, spokesman for U.S. Army Forces Command (search).
At least eight mobilization stations are using Iraqis to help Guard, reserve and active troops prepare for deployments, Close said. Among them are Camp Atterbury, 30 miles south of Indianapolis; the Joint Readiness Training Center (search) at Fort Polk, La., and the National Training Center at Fort Irvine, Calif.
Some days, the Iraqis play welcoming townspeople, friendly mayors or Iraqi police; on others, they portray terrorists or hostile villagers.
The training represents a change in philosophy for the military, said David R. Segal, director of the Center for Research on Military Organization at the University of Maryland. Army troops have long received language help as they prepared for battle, but cultural training was nonexistent in such conflicts as the Vietnam War, he said.
Winning over the Iraqi people, who play a key role in this mission, is crucial to success, Segal said. "This is a war where cultural knowledge may be more important than the number of bullets that you have," he said.
Many of the participating Iraqis immigrated to the United States after the 1991 Persian Gulf War to escape oppression under Saddam Hussein's regime. Some are now American citizens.
Their work with U.S. troops is coordinated by defense contractors such as Goldbelt Eagle, which is paid $15 million to provide role players at five military bases. President Wayne Smith said applicants typically hear about the jobs through word of mouth or recruiters.
All participants must pass rigorous screenings by a private investigator and the government.
Thanon and his friend Salim Alshimary said they sought the work to help their homeland.
"I love this job, trying to help the U.S. military understand my language and my culture and save lives, both of them, the Iraq and the U.S.," Thanon said.
Alshimary, 36, of Basra, Iraq, said he deserted from the Iraqi Army after the 1990 invasion of Kuwait. He believes he would have been killed if he had not left the country.
He has been surprised by the postwar violence in his homeland.
"We never thought this bad stuff would happen," he said. "We thought it would be easy and it will be very quick."
It has been neither, which makes understanding the Iraqi culture essential, participants said.
Thanon, who attended Basra University and coached soccer in Iraq, advises the troops to not touch women and not to yell at children; both actions perceived as disrespectful.
In one scenario, he pretends to be the head of a household who won't cooperate with the troops unless they are polite.
"That way, I will help you get into my house and search my house and be friendly," Thanon said.
"We know the Americans go over to help us, but there are some people in Iraq that can't understand that because they see them do things in different ways."
Segal said those cultural differences were evident in the media portrayal last month of the shooting of a wounded and apparently unarmed man by a Marine in a Fallujah mosque.
The Arabic media expressed outrage that the Marines wore boots in the mosque — a taboo in the Muslim faith. The issue was hardly mentioned in the American media, Segal said.
Maj. Gen. Bruce Robinson, commander of the 98th Division, which recently deployed from Camp Atterbury to help train the Iraqi military, said the cultural lessons have been beneficial.
"We go in as guests to a host country and poised to respect the cultures and customs of that culture," Robinson said.