CAMP KOREAN VILLAGE, Iraq --
The citizens of Rutbah, Iraq, a town of about 20,000 in western Iraq, have long struggled to catch up technologically with the rest of the modern world. Until recently, the primary source of outside news came from limited satellite television or internet access, and second-hand information gleaned from friends and families.
As part of an overall effort to improve all facets of life in Rutbah, the Reserve Marines of 2nd Battalion, 25th Marine Regiment, Regimental Combat Team 8, have brought a wealth of expertise gleaned from both military training and civilian careers with them to help usher the town of Rutbah into the modern era of mass communications.
Capt. Timothy Leonard is the battalion communications officer who in the civilian world is a mutual funds salesman. A Stamford, Conn., native, Leonard holds a master’s degree in computer information systems from Boston University and is a graduate of the Marine Corps’ Communications Information Systems Officers Course.
In addition to ensuring that the battalion’s Marines can communicate by radio and Internet from throughout the battalion’s vast area of operations, Leonard and his team of communications specialists have committed the past four months to spearheading initiatives to provide accurate news to the Iraqi people.
“I work closely with the Rutbah City Council’s media committee on various means of mass media to reach the population in the city,” explained Leonard. “They have started a monthly magazine, have developed a website, and even set up a radio station during my time here. My role is to advise and mentor the Iraqis and provide technical assistance as needed.”
Cpl. Joseph J. Nelson of Plaistow, N.H., has mentored Iraqi Web design technicians over the past few months to establish the first local municipal Web site in Al Anbar province.
The Web site is used to disseminate information about utility services, security issues, results of city council meetings, public service announcements, and photos of city events. It was also an effective tool in a recent drive to recruit quality applicants to beef up the local police force and notify citizens of the registration process for the Jan. 31 provincial elections.
“This gave me a chance to learn more about making and designing a Web site and an opportunity to work with someone from a different culture,” said Nelson, who is the battalion’s data chief. “The biggest challenge was the language. With not being able to speak or read Arabic, I had to heavily rely on an interpreter to read everything on the site.”
Fortunately for Nelson and the Marines of 2/25, Tamer Talal Hammad, one of the battalion’s civilian Arabic interpreters, is also a telecommunications specialist.
Hammad has spent most of his career installing and servicing high frequency transceiver systems, satellite receivers and cell phones in Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Yemen and his home country of Jordan.
The Marines drew from both Hammad’s translation skills and technical background in their communications initiatives throughout Rutbah. In particular, Hammad’s partnership with the Marines played a critical role in the development of the first-ever Rutbah-area radio station, according to Cpl. Martin C. Conroy, who supervised bringing the concept to reality over the past several months.
“I wanted to assist with a project that would hopefully help improve the quality of life for the local citizens and will have a lasting effect after we leave,” said Conroy, a firefighter from Arlington, Mass. “I also thought it would be a challenge and an interesting experience to work with and help the locals install and operate a radio station.”
Conroy learned his skills from a vocational program at Minuteman High School in Lexington, Mass., where he studied electronics before joining the Marine Corps Reserve in 2002 as a field radio operator.
“Fellow communications Marines and I installed the radio here on Camp Korean Village (in October) to test it out and see how it operates,” explained Conroy. “We also practiced setting up the antenna quickly to minimize the amount of time it would later take out in Rutbah. While this was going on, we did site surveys (in Rutbah) to estimate power needs and determine the best location for the transmitter and antenna. We then packed it up and transported it out to the city council building and assembled the radio, antenna, and set up the computer that was needed to operate the radio. Once assembled, we explained to the locals how to use all of the gear. We have continually provided support by visiting and answering any questions or helping them with issues that arise during operation of the radio.”
Salih Ahmed Hasoon of Rutbah is the station’s primary disc jockey and on-site technical expert. Although he only makes about $80 a month for his work with the station, he spends as much time as he can spare away from his local electronics store to ensure the station stays on the air.
“I just want to do what I can for the people here,” said Hasoon. “If you turn off the station, people will ask, ‘Where is the radio? Where is the news?’”
The station is not yet operational 24-hours because of interrupted power service in the city, but the U.S. State Department recently procured funding for an electric generator to pick up the slack when the electricity goes out.
“With a little patience and more training by the Marines to the radio staff, the people in Rutbah will be able to know the significance of the radio station and how much it could bring them in benefits and entertainment,” said Hammad.
The final initiative of 2/25’s communications campaign is the Rutbah monthly newsletter; a free, Arabic-language periodical written by locals and laid out and published with the assistance of Lance Cpl. Kristian M. Deppe of Hudson, N.H.
A tactical data networking specialist in the Corps, Deppe became involved with the newsletter several months ago when Leonard asked him to fix the printer at the city council building. The newsletter includes articles about municipal project proposals, decisions made by the city council members, youth athletics events, and political satire cartoons.
“We saw a very positive feedback from the first issue,” said Deppe. “This newsletter is having a significant affect on informing the people of whatever the current events are. Overall, this will improve their way of life and economy.”
Although publication is currently funded by the Rutbah City Council, newsletter staff members are working to introduce the concept of paid advertising to local businesses so that the paper can become self-sufficient.
Mohammed Shakr, the Rutbah City Council chairman of the media committee, oversees all media products and ensures accurate, unbiased and timely dissemination of local, regional and national news in the district.
Shakr also personally reads e-mail messages sent to the city council through the Web site from citizens, expressing concerns about all facets of life in the city and making recommendations for improvements to the Web site and newsletter. People can also anonymously report suspected insurgent activity, which Shakr can turn over to the local police for investigation.
“This Web site, newsletter and radio station, give legitimacy to the new government,” said Shakr through interpretation. “Without these sources of information, people will only get news from word of mouth,” said Shakr. “They will not know the truth. They will know only rumors.”