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Are U.S. troops learning from cultural blunders in Iraq?
“Sir, I’m going to have to ask you to leave that bottle of water in the vehicle,” Captain Adam Canon told me as I got out of the Humvee. We were about to meet some Iraqi army officers in the northern city of Mosul, one of Iraq’s insurgent hotspots. “It’s because it’s Ramadan. The men we’re about to meet haven’t had anything to drink in this heat the whole day and there’s still three hours to go.”
I was embarrassed not to have thought of it myself, but I was also encouraged: U.S. troops have often been accused of failing to understand Iraq’s cultural landscape.
Canon then managed a short chat with the Iraqi soldiers we met in their native Kurdish (later, in Arabic, he exchanged pleasantries with an Arab policeman). He engaged in small-talk with every Iraqi we came across on our tour, despite a packed schedule, before getting down to business (it’s rude not too). He embraced them on leaving. It was all common courtesy, but it bucked a common perception of U.S. troops as culturally insensitive.
In his book about Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone compound in the year after the 2003 invasion, “Imperial Life in the Emerald City”, former Washington Post Baghdad bureau chief Rajiv Chandrasekaran writes: “At the cafeteria at the Republican Palace … a buffet featured … a bottomless barrel of pork: sausage for breakfast, hot dogs for lunch, pork chops for dinner. Hundreds of Iraqi secretaries … were Muslims and were offended by the presence of pork. But the American contractors kept serving it.”
Iraqis have other complaints. They say U.S. troops often shouted or hurled abuse at tribal leaders when patrolling neighbourhoods: a grave insult to a dignitary. In raids, they have kicked down doors to houses and hauled everyone out, including women — a big taboo. “They would frisk women, enter the bedroom, rumble through the wardrobe where the women keeps bedclothes. This enrages the Iraqi man,” said Basim al-Azzawi, a Sunni Arab tribal leader in northeast Baghdad.
Some Iraqis say they noticed a change after General David Petreaus took over as U.S. commander in February 2007. (Petraeus handed over command last week to General Ray Odierno.) A counterinsurgency expert, Petraeus had won plaudits for working closely with local leaders in Mosul in 2003. Instead of barking orders at local dignitaries, U.S. troops have been taking a more measured approach, the tribal sheikhs say.
Recently, when U.S. troops wanted to take a woman in for questioning in his district, Azzawi says, they asked a tribal leader to approach a male in the house first. While this is hardly proof of a big cultural shift, it’s hard to imagine such care being taken in the heady days of 2003.
And U.S. military officials point out they haven’t been the only parties to make cultural blunders. “People say we’re culturally stupid and we are. But not as culturally stupid as al Qaeda,” said Major John Oliver in Mosul.
Sunni Islamist al Qaeda tried to supplant the centuries-old Sunni Arab tribal structure in parts of Iraq and enforced a puritanical brand of Islam alien to Iraqis. They also bombed barber shops and cut smokers’ fingers off. The result: Sunni Arabs sheikhs joined forces with the U.S. military to deal a major blow to the militant group.
But not all American soldiers have taken the message to heart. In May, a U.S. sniper enraged Iraqis when he used a Koran for target practice at a firing range near Baghdad. President George W. Bush had to apologise.