Tuesday, May 25, 2004

AMIRIYAH, Iraq — The first time the women at the paramilitary training camp here went for shooting practice most were nervous, some started crying and others did not want to pick up the guns.

Nearly four weeks later, Shemaa Jasem, 22, held up her paper target showing three small holes near the bull’s-eye, and was disgusted. “Bad shooting today,” she said.

The United States hopes some of these women will contribute to the security of Iraq when U.S. troops depart, with some expected to join the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps (ICDC), the country’s U.S.-trained paramilitary force.

The 17 women shooting are employees at the camp, jobs that come with some risk because sections of Iraqi society view them as American collaborators who make a softer target than the heavily armed U.S. soldiers.

Having been told to undergo basic weaponry and first-aid training after a series of mortar attacks on the base at Amiriyah, west of Baghdad, some of the women now plan to join the ICDC. They will be employed at checkpoints and will search female suspects during raids on homes.

Where the mood was once anxious, it has become jovial. Two of the women were shooting Saturday while the others sat on the ground chatting cheerfully.

To pass the shooting section of their training, the women had to get bull’s-eyes with two out of seven shots. Many came back from the wooden boards at the end of the range waving their targets in triumph.

“If they get it in the middle, it means they are expert. If they hit the paper, that’s OK; it still means they can kill somebody,” said their trainer, Staff Sgt. Walter Challapa of the U.S. 1st Cavalry Division.

Some of the women’s husbands did not know their spouses were spending their days wearing ICDC uniforms, which they stashed inside the base at night, but Sgt. Challapa said the mood was changing.

Mrs. Jasem, a former factory worker from Baghdad whose sister Sondas, 33, also was going through training, said she was proud of what she was doing. Most of the women refused to give their full names for security reasons.

“This is a good thing for my country, going against the terrorists and the bad guys,” she said. “My mother and father are very happy. I want to join the American Army one day.

“Wherever I go, I tell people that I work for the ICDC and the coalition forces.”

Aeman, 28, said the training had empowered women who have long been repressed in Iraqi society.

“I wanted to do the best for my country, that’s all. Before I just used to do the cleaning,” said the married mother of four daughters.

“We feel that this gives [women] a kind of courage that we didn’t have before. I have chosen to stay here. My husband’s fine, but I have to work at home every morning at 5 a.m.”

Sgt. Challapa said it was the first group of women he had trained in Iraq and that he had seen their confidence grow.

“Before, the men were in charge of everything,” he said. “This is a new generation and they can’t go back.”

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