Best Regards from Baghdad

My One Year in Iraq

Mike's Notes - Mandatory Training

Anne's greatest service, through her website, has surely been to provide her colleagues in the State Department, the Federal Government generally, and in the private sector with advance information about the process of transitioning to an assignment in Iraq.  Such knowledge can help reduce the high levels of stress produced by a move into a frankly dangerous situation.  I certainly have found it helpful to know the small details and Anne's helpful tips on transiting through Jordan and on entering and leaving Iraq, which I plan to reread soon.  I hope to continue this trailblazer function, or, in the reference from Hansel and Gretel that my military colleague often uses, attempt to leave bread crumbs through the forest for those following behind me.


I finished two weeks of mandatory training for my Iraq assignment in February.  During the course of my Foreign Service career, I actually have received a lot of training, most of it language, including two years of Japanese but also a 9-month economics course prior to my first assignment as an economic officer.  The language courses were normally supplemented by "area studies" and culture classes to prepare for my future assignment.  Other than two weeks required for my first Washington assignment, however, none of this pre-assignment training had ever been mandatory, so I was surprised when I first learned of the requirement.  Per the Iraq desk's suggestion, I scheduled the training during an unrelated Temporary Duty (TDY) assignment to Washington, which allowed me to take the training during an off-peak period and avoid an even earlier departure from my present post of assignment.


The FACT Course


I see from rereading Anne's notes that the courses have evolved.  The most obvious change is that a formerly three-day Iraq familiarization course is now generally five days (although the Presidents' Day holiday kept my course to four days).  While the Foreign Affairs Counter Threat (FACT) course, "crash-and-bang," is still five days, unlike Anne's, my course included a driving portion (during which we learned the proper way to ram our way through a parked car).  (During the course, we also familiarization fired on the M-4 carbine version of the M-16 rifle, an AK-47 rifle, and the SIG and Beretta 9-mm pistols, but not a 12-gauge shotgun.)


I found the most valuable portion of the FACT course, however, to be the medical first responder training.  The medical training was directed to more serious injuries than normally included in a first-aid course, but, oddly, did not include any CPR or artificial respiration training.  In addition, although the likelihood that I would need to either fire a weapon or drive a car during my assignment is low, the 2003 bombing of the Al-Rashid Hotel, when State Department officers working for the Coalition Provisional Authority were present, a 2004 bomb in the Green Zone Café, and a 2007 bomb at the Iraqi Parliament, both inside the Green Zone, definitely demonstrate the need for the medical training.


The Iraq Familiarization Course


As the 50-or-so students responded to the instructor's questions about their background, I could see that the composition of the Iraq familiarization class reflected both the changing nature of the U.S. mission in Iraq and unique aspects of service with U.S. Embassy Baghdad.  About a fourth of the class was headed to work with Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) in various parts of Iraq.  Many members of the class were so-called 3161s, named for the section of law that provided the State Department with the authority to hire experts on various subjects work in Iraq on one-year contracts.  (Several of the 3161s had just finished serving with the military in Iraq.)  A handful of contractors and representatives of other departments and agencies of the Federal Government (including an employee of the Defense Contract Audit Agency, who would be based in Kuwait but do most of her work in Iraq) were also present.  Foreign Service Nationals (FSNs) from Nicaragua, Tanzania, Kenya, Brazil, and Somalia also participated in the course.  (Embassies normally rely heavily on FSNs, citizens of the countries where an embassy is located, to carry out a broad range of support functions but, because of the difficulty of hiring and retaining qualified Iraqis at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, the State Department has taken to cross-assigning FSNs to Baghdad on one-year assignments.  This happens nowhere else in the world.)


As we exchanged personal information, I realized how fortunate I was.  By the time I arrive in Baghdad in August, I will have known for longer than a year where I would be going and, in general terms, what I would be responsible for.  Many students, within weeks of departure to Iraq, did not know where they were headed or exactly what they would be doing.  One contractor, for example, with more than a decade of business experience in the Middle East and prior service in the military, knew that he would be working on small and medium-business development, but he did not know where he would be located or to whom he would be reporting.  He was leaving in three weeks.


A Daunting Task


Our course coordinator and primary instructor, Jerry, faced a daunting task to make the training relevant to all of us, given the incredible range in the backgrounds of his students.  For example, although never in the Middle East, I have worked in five embassies and a consulate general; a Department of Justice employee, sitting next to me, confided that he had never worked overseas and had only lived overseas for a university study-abroad program.  On the other hand, some of the students were going on their second assignment to Iraq and our class also included a naturalized Iraqi-American who was a native speaker of Arabic.


Jerry did a great job under the circumstances.  Although teaching the same course week after week must be exhausting, Jerry focused on the basic and practical elements that we would need in order to operate successfully in an Arab culture.  He was well qualified to do so, having been a U.S. Army Foreign Area Officer (FAO) Arabic specialist and serving at the U.S. Embassy in Yemen before retiring and with the Coalition Provisional Authority from 2003-2004.  (The FAO program has a well-deserved reputation for turning out area experts, and the opportunity to enter the FAO program would have been the one incentive that might have kept me in the Army.  The Army sends it FAOs for a master's degree in the area of specialization, language training, in-country familiarization travel, and a utilization assignment in the area.)


One advantage that Jerry brought to the course was his evident affection for the Arabic people and his respect for Arabic history and culture.  Although originally from eastern Kentucky and not Texas, he sounded a lot like television's Dr. Phil and had the same home-spun approach in his instruction.  He was fond of suggesting that "those of you who have been to Iraq can give me a little head nod of affirmation for those seated next to you," and would qualify his observations by saying something was "probably, normally, usually, generally" true.


Jerry stressed the importance of personal relationships built on mutual trust and confidence in working with Iraqis.  He suggested that, in dealing with Iraqis, one should demonstrate "respect, courtesy, and comfort," and, by the last suggestion, he meant that one should project a sense of being at ease in Iraqi company.  At one point, a member of the class took exception with Jerry's suggestion to avoid eating or drinking in front of Arabs during the fasting month of Ramadan.  The student argued that the decision to fast was a personal one and, for example, he would not expect others not to eat chocolate because he had given it up for Lent.  I and others in the class felt strongly that we should be sensitive to the rigors of the Ramadan fast, in which no food or drink can be ingested from sun-up to sundown for an entire month.  I wonder if the same person would feel as free to drink a beer in front of a U.S. military member, who, if he falls under the U.S. military Central Command (CENTCOM) authority, is prohibited from drinking alcoholic beverages while in theater.


The biggest benefit of the course for me was the opportunity to meet future colleagues who were also on their way to Iraq.  The second benefit was Jerry's reading list of useful Iraq-related resources and the chance to get a copy of Understanding Iraq by William Polk, a short book that distills 5,000 years of Iraqi history into just 240 pages.  (Blink, and you miss a century.)  Nonetheless, the State Department would do well not to place a blanket requirement to attend the course.  The Iraq course had three elements to it -- an introduction to Middle Eastern and Iraqi history, politics, and culture; familiarization with the Arabic language; and administrative and logistics briefings about transferring to and working in Iraq.  The course could be divided into three shorter courses, and attendance requirements for each course could be waived based on background and prior experience.  I'm sure my Iraqi-American course mate would have welcomed such a provision.