Around 70 women clad in black abayas fanned themselves in a courtyard at a police station 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 women 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 several hundred U.S.- allied men security volunteers countrywide, called the Sons of Iraq.
Unlike their male counterparts, however, the Daughters of Iraq will not carry weapons.
A response to female suicide attacks
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 over 20 female suicide attacks countrywide.
"We found a void in our security measures," Knoll said. "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, 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."
Many volunteers are widows
Three-quarters of the women volunteers are widows of Iraqi policemen slain by al-Qaida, Jabbar said.
U.S. Army officers say they have not yet determined how much the women volunteers will be paid for their work.
For Shahla Hassan Alwan, 35, a widow with six children at home, being a Daughter of Iraq is a personal mission, but it's also a way to provide for her family.
Like many of the other women who graduated on Sunday, Alwan would like to see the assignment turn into a more permanent job.
"We see female police in America and we want to be like them," said Alwan. "It is a dream we want to make true. We want to use all the power we have to help our country."
Saleemah Hafeth Hassan, 35, a former Iraqi Army soldier during Saddam Hussein's regime who also has enlisted in the volunteer group, saw two of her brothers slain by al-Qaida.
"The danger is normal for me," she said. "If I don't help my country, who will?"