Charm offensive: the Army's secret weapon in the battle for Iraqi hearts

British soldiers in Iraq have been much praised for their tact. Clare Rudebeck visits the charm school where they learn their skills
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The Independent Online

"There are three things you should avoid talking about: sex, politics and religion," says Mohamed Issa, looking sternly through his glasses at his attentive audience. "If you avoid these topics, you will be safe."

It's the kind of speech you might expect to hear at a finishing school. But this is not a classroom high in the Swiss Alps, and Mr Issa's pupils are not young ladies eager to learn the rules of dinner party conversation: they are members of the British Army, dressed in combat fatigues, being schooled in how to stay on the right side of the Iraqi population. The lesson takes place in a plain classroom behind an 8ft security fence at the Defence School of Languages in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire.

Six months ago, one member of the class, Captain Steve Griffiths, 44, was serving in Iraq in the 7th Armoured Brigade. "We controlled the guns throughout the conflict," he says. "The troops at the front would tell us to fire at a particular location and we would co-ordinate it." When he returns to the region in a few weeks' time, he'll be adopting a rather different tactic.

After a 10-week course in Arabic and Iraqi customs, Captain Griffiths and his fellow pupils, drawn from all ranks on the basis of perceived aptitude, will be at the forefront of a charm offensive, hoping to ensure that the British make the right impression in southern Iraq.

Much more than social death is at stake. There is now an average of 20 attacks per day on coalition forces. Most of these assaults have been on American troops, but the British have not been immune from local anger. In June, six Redcaps (Royal Military Policemen) were killed in Majar al-Kabir after a riot that started when residents accused the British of breaking an agreement not to search their homes for weapons. And, as the British Army settles in for a long stay in the region, with 1,200 extra troops being deployed to the area in the next few months, good relations with the local community have never been more important.

It is a large responsibility resting on alarmingly few muscular shoulders. Of the 11,200 British troops who will be in Iraq by the end of the year, only 100 have so far received this rudimentary training in Iraqi culture. There are a dozen in this class, with 50 currently studying in the school. The rest of the British Army receives a language card containing such useful phrases as "Hello", "How are you?", "Stop" and "I will have to shoot". Mastering the intricacies of Iraqi etiquette is not easy.

In the classroom, Mr Issa, a senior lecturer in Arabic at the Defence School of Languages, is taking his students through the dos and don'ts of an Iraqi tea party. "When you enter the house, take off your shoes and sit on the floor," says Mr Issa, who has dual Syrian and British nationality. Following his own instructions, he sits cross-legged at the feet of his class and offers some words of wisdom. "It is very hard to sit this way for a long time. You will need to practise it. Arab people can sit like this for one, two, three, 10 or 20 hours," he says.

He has brought in a few props to help him with today's lesson. A hookah pipe sits on his desk and, by it, some tea glasses and coffee cups. The tea glasses look like enlarged shot glasses and the coffee cups are small, smooth and golden. Mr Issa hands them out to his pupils, pointing out that they must be taken with the right hand - using the left is considered exceptionally rude and may result in the offer of refreshments being withdrawn.

"The coffee will be very heavy," warns Mr Issa. "So don't drink a lot - otherwise, you will not be able to speak." The tea will be less potent. However, it may be very hot. Mr Issa advises his class to hold their tea glass at the top to avoid burnt fingers. Once they have had their fill, the students are told to wiggle their glass, which will signal to their host that three helpings of tea is quite enough.

The class hold up their glasses and practise wiggling them. It's a cosy scene, but, as with most tea parties, there are tensions simmering just under the surface. For the realities of occupying a country as unstable as Iraq do not always allow for social niceties.

The British do not, for example, remove their shoes before they raid Iraqi homes.

The head of the Arabic department at the school, Major Alex MacDonald, was in Iraq in July with the Iraq Survey Group. While there, he was asked to attend a morning raid, because he is fluent in Arabic.

"They did the smashing in of the door and all that," he says. "And then I was brought forward to speak to the householders. So I'm standing around, shaking their hands, while someone else is going through their cupboards." His presence proved invaluable. By talking to the residents, Major MacDonald was able to discover that the man they were after was in fact not at home, but elsewhere with his mistress.

But the awkwardness of that situation underlines the general awkwardness of the British position in Iraq. Our soldiers must win the Iraqis' hearts and minds, while protecting themselves from being blown to pieces by Iraqi "terrorists". They must be friendly, yet fearsome. And their task is not helped by the behaviour of their less popular friends, the Americans.

The British, of course, would never dream of bad-mouthing their allies. But neither can the men of the Defence School of Languages quite disguise their frustration with them. This leads to a few awkward conversations, for example, with Colonel Anthony Rabbit, the school's commanding officer.

One minute, Colonel Rabbit is admitting that the Allied forces need to do a better job of communicating with the Iraqi population. The next, he says that he doesn't think that's true of the British forces. He then dismisses the suggestion that the reputation of the British forces has been tarred by the behaviour of the Americans, admitting only that "from what I've seen on TV, as an observation", the Americans could be more culturally sensitive.

Mr Issa ties himself up in a similar knot. He volunteers that he prefers teaching British to American forces. But when asked why, he responds by blushing deeply and says: "The British are nice people."

Perhaps the Americans should be added to Mr Issa's list of topics best avoided. But even steering clear of the original three taboo subjects may not be as easy as he makes it sound. Take politics, for example. It would be surprising if at least some Iraqis did not ask British troops when they intend to leave their country, or even why they invaded it in the first place. But these are questions that the soldiers on this course have not yet been trained to answer.

Private Oliver Pope, 19, and Corporal Sonia Tuck, 25, who are in the sixth week of the 10-week course, look panicked when I ask them how they would respond to such an inquiry. Major MacDonald explains: "That is covered during another phase of the training, which is called OPTAG. It's a package, including weapon-handling and other things. You can get a whole battalion through it in a couple of days. It's during that bit when the... not political indoctrination ... but where that side of the information occurs."

Corporal Tuck's only previous experience of the Middle East is a two-week package holiday to Egypt, while Private Pope has never been to the region. Both say they are apprehensive about going to Iraq.

"I'm definitely apprehensive. It's my first tour, so I don't know what to expect really," says Private Pope. "I'm excited, but six months is a long time to be away." Private Pope is enjoying the course, especially the fact that there is no hierarchy in the classroom, which means that he is treated with the same respect as the lieutenants in his class.

However, he's still wary of some aspects of Iraqi culture, calling the food "an acquired taste". As part of the course, he and his fellow pupils go on several London trips - to the Regents Park mosque, the Imperial War Museum and an Arabic restaurant in Shepherd's Bush. "At the restaurant, we were given a lot of food," says Corporal Tuck, looking as though she had a nasty taste in her mouth, "and it was very sweet."

Major MacDonald describes the ethos behind the course, "Throw a lot of mud at the wall and hope that some of it sticks," he says. Lessons are conducted predominantly in Arabic from the very beginning, which Private Pope found overwhelming at first. "I used to go to sleep at night just thinking about Arabic," he says.

By the end of the programme, the students are expected to be somewhere around GCSE standard. But they wouldn't actually pass GCSE Arabic, because the vocabulary they need is rather specialised.

In the first few weeks, the course concentrates on civilian matters: going to the market, eating out, directions and days and dates. But from the sixth week onwards, the vocabulary becomes more military in nature, covering topics such as working with a host nation army and taking part in an exercise.

Role-play scenarios include setting up a firing range.

In their cultural lessons, the students are told to make sure that, in Iraq, the soles of their feet never point at anyone. This is an extremely insulting gesture and very easy to do by mistake if you are sitting on top of a tank. They are also warned that public intimacy between men and women is a no-no. However, public displays of affection between men are fine, should any British soldiers wish to take advantage of this.

Iraq is currently awash with rumours about Allied forces. It is said that their night-vision goggles can see through walls and women's clothing. Another tale suggests that Western forces captured all of Saddam Hussein's ministers within the first week of the war, but are only releasing the news of each arrest when it suits them politically.

Armed with their new-found linguistic and social skills, the graduates of the Defence School of Languages will be trying to break down these misconceptions and convince a sceptical local population to trust them. Of course, it has been done before - most memorably by TE Lawrence.

But the head of school is more realistic in his expectations. "While they are in Iraq, they will probably have more prominence within their regiments," says Colonel Rabbit, "because, in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king."