WASHINGTON - The shortage of Arabic translators in Iraq has made it harder for U.S. soldiers to protect themselves, jeopardized interrogations of suspected al-Qaida terrorists in U.S. custody in Cuba and left almost no one to defend American policy on Arab television stations.
Despite an aggressive effort to recruit Arabic speakers in the two years since the Sept. 11 attacks, the U.S. government still suffers from a shortage that is hampering military, diplomatic and intelligence operations in the Middle East.
Solutions seem hard to come by. Arabic and other languages of the Middle East are very different from English. It can take non-native speakers several years to learn and speak it comfortably.
"It's easier to train someone to fly an F-14 than it is to speak Arabic," said Kevin Hendzel, a spokesman for the American Translators Association.
Critics contend the United States simply hasn't put enough effort into correcting the deficiency. Britain, for example, gives extensive training to a higher percentage of the soldiers it sends to Iraq.
"This is such a critical challenge that we have, this battle for the minds of this very important part of the world," said Edward P. Djerejian, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria and Israel who speaks Arabic himself. "We're simply not there."
The government didn't begin aggressively recruiting Arabic speakers until after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, carried out by Arab extremists from Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network. Congress criticized U.S. terrorism-fighting agencies for missing the growing threat of an attack. Many problems stemmed from agencies not sharing information, but the shortage of Arabic linguists may also have played a role.
The FBI has acknowledged it needs more experienced translators of all languages but especially Middle Eastern. CIA officials say they need native Arabic speakers familiar with foreign cultures to blend in overseas. The armed forces also need Arabic speakers who understand military jargon and are in good enough shape to keep up with troops.
American troops on duty in Iraq often speak little if any Arabic. They must shout in English or gesture their way through dangerous confrontations.
It also can be dangerous to hire interpreters without sufficient screening.
A recent Army report on intelligence-gathering in Iraq found the military relying on translators who had been "convenience store workers and cab drivers" in the United States.
At Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where hundreds of suspected terrorists are held, the arrests of three translators on spying charges prompted the military to re-evaluate some interrogations.
"If somebody from Syria comes in and says, `I want to join the FBI,' you've got to think twice about that," said James Carafano, who studies defense issues at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.
The State Department has fewer than 60 employees fluent in Arabic, out of a total of 279 Arabic speakers. Only five have the skills to go toe-to-toe with commentators on Middle Eastern television programs, according to an advisory commission Djerejian headed.
The panel recommended hiring 300 fluent Arabic speakers within two years and another 300 by 2008. It suggested incentives to diplomats to maintain and improve their fluency.
To bridge the gap, the government is seeking private translators to handle information through secure electronic connections. "The work we have right now we measure by the truckload," said Everette Jordan, director of the new National Virtual Translation Center.
The CIA recently began an effort to attract speakers of Arabic, Chinese and other key languages to instruct agency officers. It also is recruiting Arab-Americans.
The Army has about 1,300 active-duty soldiers who can speak or read some Arabic. An additional 100 are going through training.
U.S. soldiers sent to Iraq also take a cultural awareness class and receive a "green book" that describes cultures, customs and phrases, including Arabic greetings.
In contrast, many members of each British military regiment sent to Iraq spend 10 weeks of schooling in Arabic. Nearly 200 soldiers have attended since January, according to Col. Anthony Rabbitt, the school's commanding officer.
All British soldiers sent to Iraq must attend a daylong course on the Arabic culture and language.
"We realize from our experience in Northern Ireland and also in the Balkans that basic-level greetings, confidence-building and persuasion comes with a smile and a few words. And the more people that can say those few words, the better," Rabbitt said.