US eyes Israeli software as training tool for forces in Iraq

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

For US soldiers wondering what they should and should not do in their role as occupiers of Iraq, help may be on the way from the Israel Defense Forces.

The Israeli military has developed a software program to teach junior commanders 11 "codes of conduct'' when operating among civilians - fight only those fighting you, respect the dignity of the local population, don't pillage, and so forth.

"We showed it to the Americans," says Lt. Col. Amos Guiora, an Israeli military lawyer who led the development of the software, which is set to be shown to its target audience of junior-level commanders by the end of this month. "We understand that they viewed it favorably and were going to look into the possibility of translating it into English," he adds.

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The Jerusalem Post recently quoted Colonel Guiora as saying that the Americans "tell us that ... parts of it are clearly relevant with what they are going through in Iraq."

The American interest in the software - which a US Embassy spokesman in Tel Aviv confirmed but would not elaborate on - is a rare public acknowledgment that the US is even contemplating Israeli assistance. While analysts speculate that Israel may be providing intelligence or other kinds of military support, officials refuse to comment on the matter. "It's a closed door," says one Israeli Foreign Ministry spokeswoman.

Israel has occupied the West Bank and Gaza Strip for more than 36 years, experience that might benefit US troops in Iraq, where their presence is increasingly seen as occupation rather than liberation. The problem is that overt help from Israel, despite the potential benefits of Israeli expertise, might complicate America's role in a Middle East already upset about the war in Iraq and the dismal state of Israeli-Palestinian relations.

The image of US soldiers taking Israeli advice on how to occupy Arabs may not help the American hearts-and-minds campaign. One of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's clearest legacies is a robust antipathy for Israel.

"I'm sure the Americans as well as the Israelis understand that if there is any cooperation it should be very low profile in order not to burden the Americans," says Efraim Inbar, who teaches political science at Bar-Ilan University outside Tel Aviv.

But Professor Inbar says the US needs help: better intelligence, a greater civilian presence to handle occupation duties, better means of distinguishing between hostile and friendly Iraqis. "The Americans have much room for improvement in dealing with the situation," he says.

"I assume the Americans can learn something from our experience," adds Ephraim Kam, a former IDF colonel now with the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies in Tel Aviv. "How do you deal with a population that doesn't want you?"

Shlomo Brom, a former Israeli general, says that the situation that Israeli troops face in the Palestinian territories and the one encountered by US troops in Iraq is "very problematic." People often attribute the killing of civilians in such situations to a lack of military discipline, Mr. Brom says, without understanding the pressures the troops face from the threat of guerrilla attack. "No one can say that US troops - which are professional troops, not draftees - are not disciplined, but we are seeing quite regularly that innocent people are being killed," he says.

The new Israeli software is designed in part to prevent soldiers from making mistakes that cost civilians their lives. Using a mélange of film clips, animations, photographs, and true-or-false quizzes, the software seeks to inculcate respect for some basic humanitarian principles.

"The punch line of these codes [of conduct] is the need to treat the Palestinian population in a humane and dignified fashion," says Guiora. One section opens with a scene from the Oliver Stone movie "Platoon" in which US soldiers torch the huts of a Vietnamese village, toss hand grenades down wells, and lead away villagers who are trussed at the neck. That is not the way to go.

The subsequent animation tells viewers that mistreating civilians can turn them into the enemy. Another image depicts civilians who deserve to be treated with "dignity and humanity": a woman holding a child, a cleric, an elderly man, and a representative of the civil authority.

Other parts of the software portray situations including how to react if a gunman fires from a hospital, how to handle the approach of an ambulance that may hide fighters, and what to do if a civilian spots soldiers engaged in an operation.

Uriel Masad, spokesman in Israel for the International Committee of the Red Cross, the Swiss-based organization that promotes respect for the laws of war, has seen the software. "We were impressed by the presentation and viewed it very positively," he says.

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