WASHINGTON (AP) _ Despite catch-up efforts, the government still suffers from a shortage of Arabic speakers that gravely hampers military, diplomatic and intelligence operations across the Middle East.

In Iraq, the language gap makes it more difficult for soldiers to protect themselves. At Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, it has jeopardized interrogations of suspected al-Qaida terrorists. And on Arab television stations, it has left almost no one defending American policies.

Correcting the problem hasn't proved simple in the two years since the Sept. 11 attacks. Arabic and other Middle East languages are radically different from English, and it can take English-speakers several years to speak them 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 adequate emphasis on closing 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. ``We're simply not there.''

Aggressive recruiting of Arabic speakers didn't begin until after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, conducted by Arab extremists from the al-Qaida network. A report by Congress' intelligence committees criticized all major U.S. terrorism-fighting agencies for missing the growing threat of a terror attack. Although many problems stemmed from agencies' not sharing information, the shortage of Arab speakers may also have played a role.

In spite of the shortage, six soldiers trained to speak Arabic were among nine Army linguists dismissed from the service for homosexuality within six months of the U.S. invasion of Iraq last March. Two said they sought federal jobs to use their language skills in the war on terror but were rejected.

The FBI has acknowledged since the attacks that it needs more and better translators of all languages, especially Middle Eastern languages. Similarly, the armed forces need Arabic speakers who also understand military jargon and are in good enough shape to keep up with troops.

Instead, American troops on patrol in Iraq or rushing to secure bombing sites often speak little if any Arabic and so must shout in English or try to gesture their way through dangerous confrontations.

It can be just as 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, most over age 40.

At Guantanamo Bay, where hundreds of suspected terrorists remain in U.S. custody, the arrests of three translators on spying charges forced 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.

A surge in student interest since the Sept. 11 attacks may offer some hope. More than 10,000 college students were taking Arabic classes in autumn 2002, compared with about 5,500 four years earlier, according to the Modern Language Association.

Before the attacks, more American students _ nearly 7,000 in 1998 _ were signed up to learn Portuguese.

Meanwhile, the State Department, the agency primarily tasked with America's diplomatic relations worldwide, has fewer than 60 employees fluent in Arabic, out of 279 total Arabic speakers. A scant five have the polish and skills to go toe-to-toe with commentators on Middle Eastern television programs, according to an advisory commission Djerejian headed.

The panel recommended hiring another 300 fluent Arabic speakers within two years and another 300 by 2008. It suggested incentives to diplomats to maintain and improve their fluency.

To make up some of the gap, the government is turning to private translators to handle documents and tapes 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 government also is trying to increase its own Arabic speakers.

The Army has about 1,300 active-duty soldiers who can speak or read some Arabic and another 100 being trained at a defense language school in California.

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, according to Army public affairs.

In contrast, several members of each British military regiment sent to Iraq receive 10 weeks of schooling in Arabic language and culture.

Nearly 200 soldiers have attended since January, according to Col. Anthony Rabbitt, the school's commanding officer.

In addition, all British soldiers sent to Iraq must have attended a daylong course on Middle Eastern culture and the Arabic 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.

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On the Net:

Report of the Advisory Group on Public Diplomacy for the Arab and Muslim World: http://www.state.gov/documents/organization/24882.pdf