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Women Officers Hired to Thwart Female Bombers

Special police unit and better intelligence seen by officials as key to tackling escalating problem.
By IWPR
An all-female civilian security force has been created to try to stem the threat of women suicide bombers following a summer of bloody attacks.



As well as the unarmed special unit, the authorities are to gather more intelligence on the trend. But women activists feel the strategy is flawed, believing it should be aimed at alleviated poverty.



The number of female suicide bombers this year has risen dramatically, with ten of the estimated 30 attacks in 2008 occurring since June. The United States military estimates that the figure for 2008 is greater than the total for the period between 2003 and 2007.



And while the number of security incidents nationwide has dropped by 80 per cent in the last year, the figure for suicide bombings has remained relatively constant because of the spike in attacks carried out by women, according to multi-national forces spokesman Colonel Scott Maw in Baghdad.



Iraqi security forces and the US military say the threat posed by women suicide bombers has forced them to adopt a new security strategy to address the issue.



One of the biggest problems has been the ease with which women have been able to evade security personnel. Social and religious custom prevent policemen from searching women at checkpoints, enabling them to carry out attacks with explosives under their abbayas – traditional, long, sweeping cloaks.



A key part of the new strategy has been the training of women police for an unarmed civilian security force and better intelligence gathering. Last month, the ministry of interior had over 1,400 female officers working throughout the country.



The force, trained by the Iraqi and US military officials, is recruiting 1,000 additional members and plans to hire 100 investigators.



One of the main tasks of the female officers will be to search women both at checkpoints and in public areas such as hospitals and schools. They have also been trained to search vehicles for explosives.



Ministry of defence spokesman Mohammed al-Askari said Iraqi security officials believe that recruiting women into the security forces is the best way to counter the threat of female suicide bombers. He said they are also working to collect intelligence from suspected would-be bombers who have been arrested, many of them in Diyala.



Several of the attacks have occurred in the province, where the Sunni Arab insurgency, which is believed to be recruiting women, remains active. Although in one of the worst days of violence this year in late July, a female suicide bomber hit a Kurdish rally in Kirkuk and three women detonated their bombs in a crowd of Shia pilgrims in Baghdad. The two attacks killed 57.



Iraqi policemen are also being trained to spot female bomber suspects, by paying attention to unusual behaviour and bulky materials under their cloaks.



The female police units have already been credited with thwarting several attacks, but their male colleagues have had some successes too: a policeman stopped a female suicide bomber last month in a case that was caught on tape.



Iraqi security and coalition forces argue that al-Qaeda and its like are using women to carry out attacks because vastly-improved security has restricted insurgents’ movement.



Officials say that in a number of instances, the bombers have been drugged or were mentally handicapped, although they acknowledge that some of the perpetrators go on missions willingly to avenge the death or arrest of male family members.



Women activists and members of parliament say the authorities are going about tackling the problem in the wrong way, and should focus on addressing the poverty that’s driving many women to despair.



"The problem of women suicide bombers requires social and economic solutions, not security or military strategies as are being used now," said Taha al-Saadi, a member of the Iraqi parliament’s security and defence committee.



"The government is only working on security solutions without thinking about social ones."



Al-Saadi, who is from Diyala, agreed with women activists who argue that offering women financial support would make it harder for al-Qaeda to recruit them into their ranks.



Samira Al-Musawi, who chairs the women’s committee in parliament, said there needs to more intelligence on al-Qaeda sleeper cells as these units were the main recruiters of women bombers. Maw concurred, but said an improvement in the economy was also important.



The women’s affairs ministry said it is seeking to take a lead on the issue by organising a conference of academics and women’s experts aimed at providing advice and guidance for the government. The event –the first of its kind in Iraq – is expected to be held in the autumn.



“We want women to be supporters of peace,” said Azhar al-Sharbaf, a legal consultant in the ministry, “not used as a tool for killing."



Emad Al-Sharaa and Zaineb Naji are IWPR-trained journalists in Baghdad. Tiare Rath is IWPR’s Middle East editor.