The weekly Yusufiyah area government council meeting is about to start, and the heavily fortified front gate of the local community center is a crush of activity. U.S. Soldiers and Iraqi police call the men forward one by one, and pat them down for weapons before letting them inside. It is a scene replicated thousands of times a day all over the country. Except for one difference: here, the security detail includes a team of eight Iraqi women checking all of the females attempting to enter as well.
The eight women are part of a new group called the "Daughters of Iraq," an extension of the U.S.-sponsored "Sons of Iraq" program, which has dramatically improved security throughout large swaths of the nation. Started in 2007 as a way of bringing back into the fold marginalized Sunni tribes, many of whom were cooperating with al-Qaeda, the U.S. pays tribal leaders between $240 to $300 per month for each man the tribe employs to run roadway checkpoints and generally vouchsafe the population and U.S. forces against IEDs and gunfire. While different regions report varying degrees of success, here in the Yusufiah one point in the area once known as the Triangle of Death the decline in violence has been dramatic and precipitous. When the Army unit occupying this region approximately 10 miles south of Baghdad first arrived in October, they came under fire at least once a day. So far in May, they haven't been fired on once. Townspeople report a similar improvement, saying that they feel safer and enjoy a freedom of movement that they have not had in years. Though the area is still desperately poor, the signs of revival are evident. People make their way about the streets with seeming confidence; the dilapidated market street is open, displaying a wide array of colorful goods; and some buildings gleam with newly completed restorations and coats of fresh paint.
The success of the Sons of Iraq checkpoints have had an unfortunate consequence, however. Ever innovative, insurgent groups have started using women to smuggle weapons and explosives past checkpoints because women are rarely, if ever, searched due to cultural norms that forbid public touching between men and women. That hole in the safety net was made abundantly clear on May 14, when a female suicide bomber successfully eluded several checkpoints and assassinated an Iraqi Army captain just a few miles from the Yusufiyah Community Center.
Responding to an Army-wide directive in February to involve more women in community affairs, Captain Michael Starz, the U.S. officer in charge of the Yusufiyah area, hit upon the idea of creating a female security force, an idea he thought could solve several problems at once. "It is a critical security issue that we find a way to have women searched at high-traffic areas," he says. "Secondly, this is an employment program. After years of war and sectarian violence, many of the women around here are widows and have no way of supporting themselves." Working with community groups in town, Starz's unit began recruiting both Shi'ite and Sunni women, paying them $8 per day. Unlike the Sons of Iraq, which is organized along tribal lines, the Daughters of Iraq is designed as a bipartisan group. Says Starz, "Everybody has gotten along perferctly harmoniously on all shifts so far."
About 70 women are now in the group. They go to class twice a week at the community center, where they are trained in searching procedures and weapons detection. Since beginning work a month ago, they have been working at meetings or major events once or twice a week. "The security situation is better than it was," says Kadija Abadi, a Daughters of Iraq member on duty today, "but it is not good yet. If I can help make it better, then of course, I will try to do that."
The Marines created a similar force, called the Sisters of Fallujah, in December, but the Army unit in Yusufiyah is hoping that this initiative takes hold throughout the country. That is a long way off, however. "There are not going to be women manning all the checkpoints along with the men any time soon," says First Lieutenant Joshua Snyder, who helps oversee the program. "Right now, we can only have them working when there is a significant coalition force presence nearby. Even women searching women can be controversial to some more conservative types."