BAGHDAD -- Iraqi police officials have dropped plans to disarm policewomen and give their guns to male officers after an outcry from critics, who said the move was a sign of religious zealots' rising influence in Iraq.
Despite the turnabout, which police confirmed yesterday, the U.S. military general who introduced women into the police force said they remained hindered in their attempts to practice real policing skills.
"Even with the revocation order, we will have to watch very closely the actions taken in regards to the remaining female Iraqi police," said U.S. Army Brig. Gen. David Phillips, adding that there "are numerous ways" to drive women from the force.
That was confirmed by Hanan Jaafer, a policewoman in the Shiite holy city of Najaf, who guards the revered shrine of the Imam Ali.
Jaafer said none of the roughly two dozen female officers posted at the shrine has a gun or uniform, even though they search women and children entering the complex and face threats from the increased use of female suicide bombers. Their male counterparts are armed, said Jaafer, who said she personally stopped a woman from entering the shrine last year with explosives that she apparently had swallowed and that had caused her abdomen to swell. Her young son was holding a remote control to detonate them.
The Interior Ministry's decision to revoke the order was done as quietly as the original order to seize the weapons. The ministry announced neither, but critics complained after the Los Angeles Times obtained documents outlining the weapons seizure order and reported on it.
Maysoon Damluji, a female member of Parliament, raised the issue with national lawmakers in December, prompting the parliament's complaints committee to seek an explanation.
In a brief response dated Jan. 17, an Interior Ministry official said the order had been "reconsidered" and the ministry "decided to return all the pistols" to policewomen. A ministry spokesman, Col. Saddoun Abulollah, said few policewomen had abided by the order in the first place but that all who did had their weapons returned to them. He described their number as "a handful" of the roughly 1,000 women who have qualified as policewomen since U.S. forces introduced female recruitment efforts in late 2003.
The reason for the weapons seizure order remains unclear. The original documents, telling policewomen to turn in their weapons by Dec. 31 or have their pay withheld, said the move was taken after some women quit their jobs and did not turn in their Glock pistols.
It also suggested that the pistols were needed to give to male recruits.
Abulollah said yesterday that the weapons were ordered taken away because some women had given their guns to male relatives.
Phillips, who launched the drive to recruit female officers in late 2003 and who now oversees U.S. efforts to develop the Iraqi police, said in December that he believed the decision was the result of the rising influence of Shiite Muslim conservatives who believe women should not do jobs traditionally held by men.
He denied that the ministry needed weapons for male officers, saying there were more than 8,600 weapons in police storage facilities in December and tens of thousands more en route to Iraq.
Tina Susman writes for the Los Angeles Times.