NAVAL STATION NORFOLK, Va. -- The battle for hearts and minds isn’t won where the metal meets the man. It’s not won with superior technology, 5,000-pound, laser-guided bombs or from inside a command post. It’s won in the warmth of the home, surrounded by smoky wisps of apple-scented tobacco, sitting face to face with the leader of 35,000 local citizens.
The training necessary to win the Iraqi citizen’s approval – training that is increasingly needed – is near impossible to duplicate without being “in theater.” But, the 24th Marine Expeditionary Units, during its Training in an Urban Environment Exercise in Hampton Roads, Va., came close. The MEU devised a cultural immersion dinner, featuring an actual sheik, authentic Iraqi food, and a facsimile of an Iraqi guest room. Attention was paid to the smallest details.
“Having the real sheiks as part of the training is absolutely critical,” said Lt. Gen. James F. Amos, II Marine Expeditionary Force commanding general and a participant in a recent dinner. “This is what Marines have to deal with, and Marines are doing it right. That’s what this training does.”
In the scenario, a rifle company commander meets with a sheik from the Iraqi town of Falluja. The sheik, his advisors and prominent members of his family sit together with the company commander and translators to discuss how the two sides can work together to ease security concerns, address employment issues, and repair infrastructure.
“The key is to figure out the big, broad direction you want to go in,” said Amos. “You don’t want to get hung up on each of the complaints.”
Sheik Abdulamir al-Jaber, speaking through a translator, said he had traveled from southern Iraq just 20 days ago to help train the Marines in Iraqi culture. His goal, he said, was to “prevent our families from being in danger and prevent the Marines from being in danger.”
Sheik al-Jaber urges the Marines to empower the Iraqi people by employing them and building the country from within, rather than having Marines do all of the work. Al-Jaber, who lived under the rule of Saddam Hussein, believes that despite the problems in Iraq, “the situation is improving.”
Behaa al-Khazeriji, an Iraqi-American role player who prepared the food for the dinner – rice with leg of lamb, says that to win Iraqi hearts and minds, the Marines must first win the sheik. Making eye contact with the sheik rather than the translator and adhering to local customs can pay dividends in gaining the sheik’s confidence, which in turn can yield benefits.
“You are safe in the house of the shiek,” explained al-Khazeriji. “Forget your weapons; you are (a) human being. Take time and listen.”
“Nobody can do nothing to you when you’re eating the sheik’s food,” added Basim al-Shamary, a native of Al-Kut, Iraq, and a dinner participant.
With the sheik on their side, the safety of Marines on the street improves, as does their ability to provide a secure environment to the sheik and his family, said Amos.
“We want to rebuild the cities so that the women and children can go to the market in peace,” said Amos. “We’re gaining ground in winning the hearts and minds. But until we kill the insurgents, we’ll never be successful.”
The 24th MEU is wrapping up the premier training event of its pre-deployment training program. TRUEX, involved each of its four components: the Command Element; Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 365 (Reinforced); Battalion Landing Team 1st Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment; and MEU Service Support Group 24.
The 24th MEU is scheduled to deploy this spring to the European and Central Command theaters of operations.