AL ABARA, Iraq (AP) — About 70 women clad in black abayas fanned themselves in a courtyard at a police station on a recent Sunday as Iraqi officials and U.S. troops gathered to celebrate the graduation of the first Daughters of Iraq group in this volatile area.
The group of female security volunteers was formed in an effort to stop female suicide attacks in Diyala province, still torn by violence. The women will begin searching other women at checkpoints, schools and hospitals next week.
The group of 70 represented a total of 130 women who graduated after a five-day training course. They join the ranks of about 80,000 U.S.-allied male security volunteers countrywide, called the Sons of Iraq.
Unlike their male counterparts, however, the Daughters of Iraq will not carry weapons.
The program was conceived in response to a rise in female suicide attacks in the province, said U.S. Army Capt. Charles Knoll, whose unit is responsible for security in several towns in the Diyala river valley, north of Baghdad.
More than nine suicide attacks have been carried out by women in Diyala this year, part of a wave of more than 20 female suicide attacks countrywide.
On Monday, four bombers thought to be women detonated their explosive vests in the middle of pilgrims in Baghdad moments after a roadside bomb attack, killing at least 32 people and wounding 102, Iraqi officials said.
Capt. Knoll hopes the female security volunteers will help fill a “void in our security measures.”
“But in Iraqi culture, it is very difficult to search women. We had to find a way to fill this gap.”
At first, local police commanders laughed off the idea of women working as security volunteers, Capt. Knoll said. But slowly, they warmed to the idea and approached women in four towns to enlist.
Lt. Col. Sattar Jabbar, who heads the Iraqi police station in al Abara, said the program also could be a good source of intelligence information.
“This will break down a big wall between us and the community,” he said. “They can get information so quick, woman to woman.”
Three-quarters of the female volunteers are widows of Iraqi policemen slain by al Qaeda, Col. Jabbar said.
U.S. Army officers say they have not yet determined how much the female volunteers will be paid for their work.
For Shahla Hassan Alwan, 35, a widow with six children, being a Daughter of Iraq is a personal mission, but it’s also a way to provide for her family.