One of 21 newly inducted policewomen patrols at a mock checkpoint during a graduation ceremony in Iraq's central Diyala province. The recruits may be used to staff checkpoints for possible explosives that women might be hiding under their garments.
One of 21 newly inducted policewomen patrols at a mock checkpoint during a graduation ceremony in Iraq's central Diyala province. The recruits may be used to staff checkpoints for possible explosives that women might be hiding under their garments. Nishant Dahiya/NPR
The first group of women to join Iraq's police force at their graduation ceremony. Security forces hope that the recruitment of women will help combat the threat of suicide bombings by females.
The first group of women to join Iraq's police force at their graduation ceremony. Security forces hope that the recruitment of women will help combat the threat of suicide bombings by females. Nishant Dahiya/NPR
Iraq has more than half a million men in its security forces. They are visible on every street corner and at checkpoints. But women are conspicuously absent from the ranks because Iraq's conservative society has frowned upon women joining the security forces.
So it's a bit jarring to see a squad of 21 women lined up alongside hundreds of young men as they prepare to be inducted into Iraq's police force. The women are dressed in blue blouses and black trousers, just like the men, except their heads and necks are covered by a hijab.
A generator whines in the corner of the dusty windswept field in Iraq's central Diyala province, thought to be one of al-Qaida's last strongholds in the country. The sun hangs angrily in the sky and beats down on the 700 recruits as they stand in formation. In front of them is a makeshift stage where senior Iraqi police officials and U.S. officers sit under a tent to watch the ceremony.
An Iraqi instructor talks to the women about their role in the day's ceremony. He tells them not to be nervous as they march, and to hold their heads high. The women acknowledge him with an "inshallah," said in unison.
Fatin Abbas Hadi, one of the women graduating, says the monthlong police training taught her the basics, like how to use guns, conduct raids and perform a professional search.
Hadi says she already knows what her first assignment will be: "I will be working at checkpoints, searching women and their bags, trying to discover if they are carrying explosives."
Al-Qaida has increasingly turned to using female suicide bombers. There have been as many as 14 suicide bombings by women in Diyala province since November of last year. Maj. General Mark Hertling, commander of U.S. forces in northern Iraq, says this is the primary reason that women are being recruited as police officers.
"We've been trying to get women into the Iraqi police force for the last six months, because it's the right thing to do, No. 1, and because it helps us counter the suicide-vest threat," Hertling says.
In Iraqi society, men do not search women at checkpoints, and it's often impossible to tell what a woman might be concealing under her loose garments.
Hertling says he expects the recruitment program to expand rapidly.
"There is a list of 200 names that we have right now of women who want to go through this," he says. "As soon as this class graduates, I think that's going to grow to 1,000 names at the end of the week."
That might well depend on the success of these 21 young women.