The Interior Ministry, which oversees the police, issued the order late last month, according to ministry documents, U.S. officials and several of the women. It affects all officers who have earned the title "policewoman" by graduating from the police academy. It does not apply to men in the same type of jobs.
Critics say the move is the latest sign of the religious and cultural conservatism that has taken hold in Iraq since Saddam Hussein's ouster ushered in a government dominated by Shiite Muslims. Now, that tendency is hampering efforts to bring stability to Iraq by driving women from the force, said U.S. Army Brig. Gen. David Phillips, who has led the effort to recruit female officers.
"We nursed it along," he said last week, referring to the recruiting effort. "We saw this as: 'If we could get 50% of the brain power in this country that is not being utilized engaged, how much further along would we be?' "
Without policewomen, Phillips said, there will be no officers to give pat-down searches to female suspects, even though women have joined the ranks of suicide bombers in Iraq. Last week, a female bomber killed at least 16 people north of Baghdad, at least the fifth such attack in Iraq this year.
Another U.S. advisor noted that forcing out female officers will hamper investigation of crimes such as rape, which stigmatizes women in Iraq, because few victims feel comfortable reporting it to policemen.
Policewomen say the decree also will leave them unable to protect themselves at work or off duty. Scores of police employees, both officers and administrative workers, have been killed by insurgents. Men and women have traditionally been allowed to carry their Glock pistols with them after hours for security.
"We are considered policewomen. We face kidnapping. We could be assassinated. If anyone knew where we worked, of course they would try to do something to us," said a 27-year-old interviewed Sunday.
"How can I be a policewoman without a weapon?" she asked incredulously as three female colleagues nodded in agreement.
They, and Phillips, said the pistol recall was the latest in a series of moves that has limited most policewomen to desk jobs. The few who have worked on the streets have been reassigned to administrative tasks.
Iraqi law still prevents policewomen from advancing to commanding-officer levels. Phillips said women have complained to him about limited opportunities and harassment by male colleagues.
U.S. trainers began recruiting women in early 2004 and were so swamped with applicants that they had to turn many away. By the end of that year, about 1,000 women had graduated. Since U.S. authorities handed over responsibility for police recruitment and training to Iraqi authorities in February 2006, Phillips said, the number of female recruits has dropped to virtually zero.
A handful of policewomen are working in western Al Anbar province after graduating from the academy in October, but Phillips said they were recruited, trained and paid with U.S. funds under a program not recognized by the Iraqi government.
"When we stop paying, they stop getting paid," Phillips said.
Phillips, who works closely with Interior Ministry officials, said he got wind of the latest move to rein in female officers last month. When he questioned the plan, Phillips said, he was told by one ministry official: "Females are taken care of by men in this country. They are not out there being police officers."
The ministry has been "whittling away step by step" at the initiative launched by U.S. troops in late 2003, Phillips said.
Attempts to get a ministry official to explain the weapons order were unsuccessful. The official spokesman did not respond to telephone messages.
The order suggests that the weapons are being confiscated because some women had quit the force and absconded with their guns. However, the four policewomen interviewed said all female employees should not be punished because a few stole their weapons. They added that policemen have stolen guns and sold them but have not been stripped of their weapons en masse.
Men who hold office jobs at the ministry are being allowed to keep their weapons, the women added.