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In Iraq, as part of a gradual withdrawal, U.S. combat troops are training and advising Iraqi forces. One of the most useful security tools U.S. has is a hard one for Iraqis to accept. It's not because of technical difficulty, but cultural taboo. Sniffer dogs are universally recognized as one of the most effective means of detecting explosives. But in Iraq, dogs are considered unclean.

NPR's Quil Lawrence spent the day with a team of Iraqi dog trainers and their American advisors in Baghdad.

QUILL LAWRENCE: Iraq has been trying to open itself up to the world again. But security is the biggest obstacle keeping visitors away. This month, Iraq hosted its first international soccer match against Palestine. The government was determined that no violence would mar the event.

(Soundbite of dogs)

LAWRENCE: And that called for Salim Saeed Ahmed and his dog, Chico. The Belgian shepherd ran up and down the stands at Baghdad's Shaab stadium hours before the game making sure no explosive materials had been planted there. Ahmed admitted that most Iraqis still consider the animals unclean.

Mr. SALIM SAEED AHMED: (Foreign language spoken)

LAWRENCE: We must help people understand about dogs, says Ahmed, and showing that they can prevent bombings is a great way to change their image. Ahmed has been a dog handler for 13 years since the Iraqi canine program was tiny. His dog Chico is a much more recent arrival - one of dozens of sniffer dogs provided by the U.S.

Ahmed just returned from a two-month course in North Carolina, which he says helped him hone his teaching skills. Now he's committed to educating a new generation of Iraqi dog handlers. The first step, he says, is harmony with the dog.

Mr. AHMED: (Foreign language spoken)

LAWRENCE: It starts with caring for the dog, combing it and washing it, tasks that most people in Iraq would consider filthy. But Ahmed says without forming this bond, it's impossible to be an effective handler. One of his American advisers agrees.

Staff Sergeant AARON MEIER (U.S. Army): It's pretty much requirement when you're working a dog to give that dog love. The greatest tool you have in your inventory when working dogs is love. A lot of dogs, that's what they work for -just your affection. So we've told that to these guys here. Some of the people that have showed up and they're willing to play with the dog, but they were not willing to go to the next step and really love the dog up. We've showed them that when they do that they get better response out of the dogs.

LAWRENCE: Staff Sergeant Aaron Meier out of Fort Sill, Oklahoma is on his third deployment to Iraq, and he loves his job here. Still, this trip hasn't been easy. Meier deployed together with Kevin, his canine partner of four-and-a-half years. The dog turned nine in February and then died suddenly of cancer two months later. Meier was given the option of going home.

Staff Sgt. MEIER: No, Kevin would - he's a worker, he's my best friend, my worker. That's where I decided to stay, like, hey, if you've got another job for me, like, I got no reason really to speed home anymore. Like, my reason's gone, you know. Of course I'm married and everything, I'd love to see my wife again, but I came over here for a job. I'm, like, hey, find me another job.

LAWRENCE: So Meier took a job training Iraqi handlers. He says the policemen who have come to work in the canine program are a self-selected bunch. They volunteer for the task force even though it offers no extra pay and is one of the most dangerous jobs in the country - looking for explosives. And they already agree, says Meier, that it's the best way to protect Iraqi civilians from car bombs and suicide attacks.

Mr. MEIER: It's the greatest tool you have. I mean, you cannot fool a dog. There's nothing you can do to trick a dog. The only thing you can trick is maybe the handler, but you ain't tricking the dog.

LAWRENCE: The program where Meier and Ahmed teach is based at the Baghdad police college and it's planning to grow to include over 100 dogs and their handlers. The dogs found no explosives at the stadium and the match went ahead without incident. Iraq won 4-0.

(Soundbite of dog)

Unidentified Man: Sit. Sit. Good boy. Good.

(Soundbite of dog panting)

LAWRENCE: Quill Lawrence, NPR News, Baghdad.

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