DALI ABBAS, Iraq -- Women in Iraq are breaking traditional societal norms to help authorities counter Al-Qaeda's use of females in suicide-bomb attacks against local security forces and government sites.
In the town of Dali Abbas in Diyala Governorate, 15 women have just joined the rolls of U.S.-funded citizen volunteers. Each day they leave their homes and stand in harm's way with police to search for explosive-packed suicide vests that may be concealed beneath the flowing "abayas" of women attempting to get near or enter government buildings, police stations, or medical clinics.
"This is a good step," says Iraqi police Colonel Mahmud Tayih Mahmud. "It's useful for our job. For example, their duty is to search the females. In our tradition it's not allowed for males to search females, its good to prevent the suicide bombers from attacking us and it's good for the security situation for the civilians.
"I could use 50 times more for nearby villages."
The women are called "Daughters of Iraq" and come under the overall supervision of the area's local police. Like male members of the Sons of Iraq neighborhood volunteer groups across Iraq, each is paid $300 a month. But unlike their male counterparts, they don't wear a uniform or identifying reflective sash. Neither are they allowed to carry a weapon of any kind.
"It is not allowed to carry any weapon," says an Iraqi police officer. "But they're trained by us on how to search a person properly. That's their job. That's what we need."
Female Bombings On The Rise
Dali Abbas, a small agricultural town best described as a "county seat" in the Sherwin district, is a few miles north of Al-Muqdadiyah. So far it has escaped a female suicide bombing but other communities in the governorate have not.
Al-Muqdadiyah has been attacked as well as Ba'qubah, the provincial capital. In July, at least seven people were killed by a female suicide bomber in Khan Bani Saad. Also in July, 22 potential police recruits were killed by a female suicide bomber near Ba'qubah, while 20 people were killed and 30 wounded earlier this month in the village of Baladruz to the south of Ba'qubah.
Nationwide there have more than two dozen such attacks by female bombers so far this year, about triple the number of the previous year. Authorities say the targets are primarily Iraqi security forces and government office compounds, which are often filled with civilians.
Iraqi and U.S. authorities say suicide vest bombings are the hallmark of Al-Qaeda, which used Diyala Governorate as a stronghold for its training camps and for hiding arms caches before they were driven to its northern and eastern fringes by successive U.S. and Iraqi military operations. Remnants of the group continue to attempt to re-infiltrate the governorate proper, which had long been a main transit route south to Baghdad.
The all-male Sons of Iraq, formerly called Concerned Local Citizens, grew out of the Sunni Awakening councils in Al-Anbar Governorate and are credited as being a major factor in helping dampen violence throughout the country, where they now number more than 100,000.
The women volunteers in Dali Abbas, formed August 12, are not new for Iraq. The Sisters of Fallujah were started in December in Al-Anbar Governorate to work with Iraqi security forces and U.S. Marines. In April, Daughters of Iraq made their appearance in the Baghdad area.
Female police are reported to number about 1,000 throughout the country, but the figure could not be immediately confirmed since the Interior Ministry, in charge of the paramilitary Iraqi police, does not classify officers by gender. Overall, the police force numbers about 299,000 people, with about 192,000 of them fully trained, according to figures released by the U.S. State Department.
U.S. military authorities said 21 female police trainees underwent a weapons certification course at a coalition force facility in Diyala Governorate earlier this month as part of overall police training and more were scheduled to do so.
Colonel Mahmud said although the Daughters of Iraq are outside the norms of prewar, female roles in Iraqi society, the people of Dali Abbas appear to accept it as a way of increasing their security. One female volunteer, however, did resign after a few days because of family pressure.
U.S. Army 1st Lieutenant Steve Saxion, of 4th Platoon, G Company, 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment, helped set up the Daughters of Iraq program in Dali Abbas. He described it as a pilot program which he expects will soon spread to other communities north of Al-Muqdadiyah.
The women, like their male Sons of Iraq counterparts, were all vetted before acceptance into the program to check for terrorist ties and other factors that could compromise security.