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IRAQ: A door opens for women

September 19, 2008 |  6:47 am

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In the five years since the U.S. invasion of Iraq, women have faced particular struggles. Security concerns have led many families to keep girls out of school; violence targeting mainly men has left hundreds of thousands of women widowed and struggling to make ends meet; religious conservatism has made it more difficult for women to hold jobs outside the home, particularly in male-dominated fields such as police work.

But women who aspire to be cops are finally getting their chance, due in large part to the unfortunate spike in females being used to carry out bombings. Recognizing a need for women to frisk other women, whom male police will not touch, the Ministry of Interior appears to be relaxing what had been opposition to the idea of females carrying weapons and working in dangerous environments.

On Wednesday, the first 21 women to graduate from police training in Diyala province got their certificates, along with hundreds of men who joined them in celebration. The event comes just in time.

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Iraqi officials say Diyala, long a stronghold of Sunni Muslim insurgents, should soon be under full control of Iraqi police and military. With fewer U.S. forces out front, it's more important than ever that Iraqi security forces beef up their numbers and have women available to search women, whose traditional flowing abayas make it easier for them to hide explosive belts or vests. Currently, U.S. forces are in charge of security in Diyala, but like other Iraqi provinces, this must change. So far, security for 11 of the country's 18 provinces has been handed to Iraqis.

Diyala is one of the diciest, in large part because Al Qaeda in Iraq remains active there and has relied more and more on women to carry out attacks. The U.S. military warned early this year that the insurgent group, finding it more difficult to recruit men, was luring women. So far this year there have been more than 30 bombings carried out by women nationwide. Last year, the total was eight.

At least 15 of the attacks have occurred in Diyala. In the past month, at least two women wired with explosives, including one in Diyala, have been apprehended before they could detonate themselves.

The women in Diyala went through the same grueling 240 hours of basic training as their male counterparts, learning to fire machine guns and pistols, to slap handcuffs on suspects, and to search vehicles and individuals. When certificates were handed out, the women and men graduates, clad in their blue police uniforms, leaped into the air with joy.

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But it hasn't been easy for women to come this far. As we wrote late last year, the Ministry of Interior opposed the idea of female cops and was quietly planning to disarm them and give their guns to men. The plan was called off after news of it leaked out and some female parliamentarians raised objections. Then, the rash of female suicide bombers began.

Women also have battled to be accepted into the U.S.-funded paramilitary program known as the Sons (or in this case Daughters) of Iraq, as we noted in this story.

Tradition runs deep in Iraq, particularly in rural areas, and the idea of women being on the front lines, weapons in hand, facing down possible terrorists is not something a lot of Iraqi men can accept.

But if the numbers of aspiring female cops are anything to go by, men won't be able to control the tide much longer. There were about 300 female applicants for the available spots in the Diyala class. At least some of them will join the next class starting in October.

"Having women in the police will be great for the security," said U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Jerry Cannon, who works with the Ministry of Interior on police training programs.

-- Tina Susman in Baghdad

Photos: Female police academy grads show off their skills, and their joy, in Diyala province north of Baghdad. Credit: U.S. Army Spc. Opal Vaughn.

P.S. The Los Angeles Times issues a free daily newsletter with the latest headlines from the Middle East, as well as the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. You can subscribe by logging in at the website here, clicking on the box for "L.A. Times updates," and then clicking on the "World: Mideast" box. 

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