Foreign Service Officers Get Crash Course on Iraq The State Department has developed a quick training program for people sent to Iraq as part of a Provincial Reconstruction Team. In two weeks, they are briefed on everything from Arabic to driving in a war zone. Is any of it taught effectively, given the short time-frame?

Foreign Service Officers Get Crash Course on Iraq

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

We're going to hear now about some of the American civilians who are helping local Iraqi governments. They work on what are called Provincial Reconstruction Teams. In January, President Bush increased the number of teams from 10 and 25.

And as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports, the State Department is trying to quickly train people for the mission.

MICHELE KELEMEN: John Matel, a Foreign Service officer, can't quite say what drove him to take on an assignment in Iraq. He served in Poland when that country was in transition, and hopes that his experience can translate to Iraq where he will be running the Provincial Reconstruction Team in Anbar province.

Mr. JOHN MATEL (U.S. Foreign Service Officer): I've always done local. I did Krakow in Poland, not Warsaw, at first. I did Porto Alegre in Brazil, not Brasilia. So I'm a decentralized kind of guy, I guess. And I come from Wisconsin, which isn't exactly the center of the world, although we think it was. And…

(Soundbite of laughter)

KELEMEN: Matel has been in the Foreign Service for 23 years. He doesn't speak Arabic and certainly couldn't learn it in the two-week course the State Department has developed. Mainly, the course was a chance for Matel to get some advice from people who have been there, such as, wear cotton under your body armor so it doesn't catch on fire.

Mr. MATEL: That's just kind of scary when they tell you that. It never occurred to me before to choose my undergarments based on flammability.

KELEMEN: Security is a major theme of the classes, which includes first aid and basic weapons training. The State Department didn't allow NPR to see any of that, though another Foreign Service Officer who went through it, Paul Wedderien, described how they're taught to drive out of danger at a raceway in West Virginia.

Mr. PAUL WEDDERIEN (Foreign Service Officer): All I can tell you is that when somebody puts you in a car and says, go hit that other car out of your way, that that's a singularly liberating experience.

KELEMEN: The security training is about a week. That leaves just five days for everything else.

Robert Perito, who has studied PRTs for the U.S. Institute of Peace, says that the fact that the officials are getting training at all is an improvement.

Mr. ROBERT PERITO (Senior Program Officer, U.S. Institute of Peace): They have made a very conscientious attempt to provide the best possible training they can in the five days that are allowed to them. But what this really turns out to is maybe an hour or two-hour lecture on Iraq, or one or two-hour lecture on Islam, a description of what are PRTs an hour and a half. And so, there's a lot that gets thrown into this very quickly.

KELEMEN: He's been on panels that were cut short because the people heading out needed more time to get their paperwork done. Some Foreign Service officers have privately complained that there's such a rush to get people to Iraq that those who are going don't have a chance to learn even basic Arabic.

Ginger Cruz, the Deputy Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, recently testified that the two billion dollar a year program has been plagued by staffing problems. The new PRTs, which are embedded in U.S. military brigades, have been filled mainly by the military. Robert Perito saw that firsthand.

Mr. PERITO: And I've spoken to several of these training programs and sometimes, you know, when you go in there, the room is just all uniforms.

KELEMEN: The State Department says that it is changing. Paul Wedderien says the training course he took was a bit more diverse, and he wouldn't say it was a room full of young people seeking adventure.

Mr. WEDDERIEN: When I looked around that classroom and - three of the people at my table were north of 55 and had been doing agricultural all of their lives. It's not for the adventure, but it is for the mission.

KELEMEN: He's hoping that he can do his part to build up trust among local Iraqi authorities, help them work through the bureaucracy, and get money to needed projects. But Wedderien knows much of his training will be on the job, even his assignment could change the moment he lands in Baghdad.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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