The World

Iraqi Women Join High-Risk Security Effort

Tuesday, February 24, 2004

The female contingent of the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps is turning heads in the country and putting a female face on the struggle to stabilize Iraq.

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Najwa on her way back to base from a mission

BAGHDAD (WOMENSENEWS)--Heads turn as the nine-vehicle military convoy rolls, weapons bristling, into the Baghdad neighborhood of Hai al Salaam. The column of armed Humvees and troop trucks has descended on this quiet middle-class district in a surprise raid to seek out a suspected arms dealer.

The combined force of U.S. soldiers and Iraqi Civil Defense Corps troops seals off a square block around the suspect's house and approaches the door. The soldiers burst in on a house containing no men and at least eight females, some of them young girls, some grandmothers.

"Females! Females!" shouts an American voice and the Iraqi translator yells, "Benat! Benat!" Into the breech step two female defense corps soldiers trained and deployed by the United States to deal specifically with female Iraqi civilians.

Two of the female soldiers watch over the women and their brood and ask about the size of the house and the number of rooms and occupants. The women stare back at them in open contempt, one cradling a crying child. The black-robed matriarch of the house sarcastically opens the china cabinet and lifts up the sofa cushions to show there are no hidden weapons. One woman starts tearing up the Arabic flier passed out by U.S. troops explaining their efforts to "eliminate criminal elements."

The two soldiers remain unfailingly polite and their demeanor is about as apologetic as is possible to convey from beneath camouflage and a ski mask and while carrying an assault rifle. By the end, they're sharing a small laugh with some of the women they've just held at gunpoint.

"Can you imagine that house with only men rushing in?" asks one of the female soldiers.

First Crop of Women to Join Defense Corps

The soldiers--among the first crop of dozens to join the defense corps--have been added to many units of the ICDC, a newly created paramilitary force that operates in tandem with the U.S. military. As reasons for joining, the women interviewed for this article cited a combination of patriotism, curiosity and the $130-a-month base salary.

As the United States works to extricate itself from Iraq, the army plans to withdraw from most of its bases in central Baghdad in coming months and relocate to the edges of the city. The ICDC and retrained Iraqi police will be expected to play a major role in maintaining order. As part of that, female soldiers are trained to move quickly into any house being raided and then guard, question and, if necessary, search any women within.

The U.S. sergeant who led the Hai al Salaam raid--who asked not to be named--credited the female soldiers for helping defuse inherently tense and hostile situations.

"If anyone came into my house like this, I'd be pissed off," he said. "They're among the first ones in every house and they do so much to just keep the temperature low. . . . They're the tip of our spear in a lot of ways."

Mindful of the male-dominated Iraqi culture, the army and Iraqi Civil Defense Corps are careful not to deploy these heavily armed female soldiers too far too fast. According to one U.S. officer, that means not putting them in the position of giving orders to Iraqi male civilians. Male soldiers deal with men; females with women.

Too New to Be a Boy's Club

Capt. Jeff Gardner, an army public affairs officer, said it was easier to incorporate women into the ICDC because it was a new entity created by the coalition last fall. Unlike the police or army, there was no entrenched bias against women assuming positions of authority to overcome. "There's no boy's club because it's so new," he said.

"It's for inspection of women especially," says Najwa, a 35-year old soldier, a former schoolteacher, who only gave her first name to protect her identify for this article. "To have men searching women and touching their bodies and undergarments just won't do."

The ability to search women is strategically vital, according to U.S. officers. Before the coalition recruited female soldiers last fall, they said suspects would exploit the coalition's reluctance to search women by hiding ammunition and even fully assembled machine guns under women's clothing.

"We'd search the males and find nothing. Then you approach the females and the metal detector starts beeping like crazy," said Capt. Daniel Getchell of the 1st Armored Division, who oversaw the training of both male and female ICDC members at the army's base in the Baghdad neighborhood of Qadhamiya.

Equal Training and Risks

Despite their specific gender role, the women of the ICDC emphasize that they underwent the same training, carry the same weapons and face the same risks as their male counterparts. Like most soldiers, the women all cover their faces with scarves or ski masks, a precaution against revenge by insurgents. Many were nervous about being photographed and all asked not to be identified in this article.

When the army first opened the ICDC to women back in November, about 40 recruits answered the call at the Qadhamiya base. Twelve made the final cut; a slightly lower acceptance rate than among the men.

U.S. officers said the female recruits' general level of physical fitness was about the same as that of the male recruits. For many, the requirement to work late nights and sometimes sleep on the base was the barrier.

"The first questions we asked were: 'Can you work nights and can you run?'" said Getchell, who also made personal approaches to the fathers and brothers of some recruits in order to allay their concerns.

After that day's raid, on the ride back to the Qadhamiya base, the camaraderie among the soldiers is obvious. One female soldier lights a cigarette for a male colleague and the jokes fly easily as the tension lifts. As they pass through the gates into base, a female soldier shouts, "Welcome back guys!" Everyone responds in kind while pulling the bullet clips from their rifles.

Ashraf Khalil is a Cairo-based freelance journalist and a regular contributor to Women's eNews. His work has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, the Boston Globe, the San Francisco Chronicle and the Christian Science Monitor.

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