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A master class of a decidedly different kind just finished up in Diyala province, north of Baghdad. NPR's Nishant Dahiya reports.

NISHANT DAHIYA: A generator whines in the corner of a dusty, windswept field. The sun hangs angrily in the sky and beats down on the 700 young recruits standing in formation. In front of them is a makeshift stage where senior Iraqi police officials and American officers sit under a tent. They're here to witness the latest additions to Iraq's police force. Iraq now has over half a million men in its security forces. You see them on every street corner and at checkpoints. What you don't see are policewomen.

Iraq's a conservative society that has traditionally frowned upon women joining the security forces. It is a little jarring then to see a squad of 21 women lined up alongside the men ready to take part in the day's ceremonies. They're dressed in blue blouses and black trousers, just like the men, but their heads and necks are covered by the hijab, a traditional head scarf, and baseball caps. Before things get under way, the Iraqi instructor explains their role in today's ceremony. He tells them not to be nervous as they march, to hold their heads high. The women nervously acknowledge the instructor's words in unison.

Unidentified Iraqi Instructor: (Arabic spoken)

Unidentified Iraqi Policewomen: Inshallah.

DAHIYA: Fatin Abbas Hadi is one of the women who's graduating. She says the month-long training taught her and the 20 other women the basics.

FATIN ABBAS HADI: (Through Translator) We learned how to use guns, conduct raids, and do a professional search.

DAHIYA: She says she already knows what her first assignment will be.

ABBAS HADI: (Through Translator) I will be working at checkpoints, searching women and their bags, trying to discover if they're carrying explosives.

DAHIYA: Using women as suicide bombers has become an al-Qaeda tactic of late. There have been as many as 14 suicide bombings by women in Diyala province since November of last year. As Major General Mark Hertling, commander of U.S. forces in northern Iraq, explains, this was the primary reason for recruiting these policewomen.

MARK HERTLING: We've been trying to get women into the Iraqi police for the last six months because it's the right thing to do, number one, but it also helps us counter the suicide vest threat.

DAHIYA: In Iraq's traditional 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. General Hertling expects the program to expand rapidly.

HERTLING: There are a list of 200 names that we have right now of women who want to go through this. As soon as this class graduates, I think that's going to grow to a thousand names by the end of the week.

DAHIYA: That may well depend on the success of these 21 young women graduates. Nishant Dahiya, NPR News, Baghdad.

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